Thursday, October 24, 2002

JD as a true working journalist....

We were aware that JD Lasica was interviewing folks at Pop!Tech, but weren't quite sure where he was going with his questions.

He has created a great piece related to "Where Net Luminaries Turn For News"!

The thoughts of the inteviewees are excellent and clearly reflect the range of thinking that makes Pop!Tech magical!

4:05:43 PM    

  Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Pop!Tech post...

JD points to a great write up by Katie Dean of Wired News. We saw Katie interviewing Pop!Techers, but chose not to pitch for some ink.

Katie points out some of the fun stuff that occurred, and reasons why Pop!Tech is a gotta be there type deal.

5:42:46 PM    

  Monday, October 21, 2002

A great, great time was had by all.....

PopTech is over, and now the waiting begins, i.e. for next year! From what we can tell everyone is home or headed there. PopTech! 2002 was sensational, the highlights to numerous to list until some of the brilliant thinking and ideas soak in, but take a moment, and read some of the best bloggers in the business who were there:

Ernie the Attorney

J.D. Lasica

Paul Boutin

David Weinberger

Dan Gillmor

Perhaps by reading their blogs, you can begin to get a sense of the magic that occurs in the Camden Opera House, but its not too early to put next year's PopTech! on your calendar....

October 16-19, 2003! and the question that will be revealed then is whether Bob Metcalfe made in back from Burning Man!

10:40:43 PM    

  Monday, October 14, 2002


The Conferenza Premium Reports (CPR) folk have just extended an offer to Pop!Tech Bloggers.  The will gladly send you free copies of their Pop!Tech reports.  Just email Shel Israel and say “Pop! Me.”

Great stuff.....

2:40:44 PM    

We just got Shel Israel's great write up, and it's below. Shel writes a terrific newsletter called Conferenza. We have found it to be invaluable, and would invite anyone that cares about this stuff to subscribe, and get the next best thing to being there delivered to your e-mail box. 


11:08:16 AM    

Stephen Wolfram Heads Strong

Roster As Pop!Tech 2003 Examines

Artificial Worlds

By Shel Israel

Editor, Conferenza Premium Reports


Oct. 17-20, 2002, Camden, Maine

Preview Report, Oct. 9, 2002



      Pop!Tech isn’t exactly a technology conference. It’s more about life, and technology’s impact on it; about ethical decision-making in the Information Age, and how technology and humanity continuously change each other. Attendees are not just from the technology sector, but also academia and public services, ranging from governors to librarians.

      It would be easy to say that Pop!Tech probably isn’t an ideal venue for a venture capitalist looking for startups with PowerPoint presentations. Yet it was founded, and a majority of its agenda decided by, venture investors generally respected for seeing the world from a 30,000 foot level or higher.

      Most who have attended it speak passionately of the experience. Things we first understood at last year’s Pop!Tech impact our actions today a full year later, like last year’s lead off talk by Megatrends author John Naisbitt, who told us that 9/11 didn’t change everything: It only changed one thing, and the rest of our world remains as it was. As MIT Media Lab’s Michael Shrage said from the dais last year, “Pop! is what your brain does.” The investors who do attend are those trying to identify human-related trends that provoke technology opportunities a few years down the road. This is a brain-food conference, more like TED than any other event. But Pop!Tech, a.k.a. Camden, is folksier, friendlier, and almost always more controversial, according to those who have attended both.

     Pop!Tech’s theme for 2002 is “Artificial Worlds.” Steven Larsen, this year’s honorary program chair and a venture partner at St. Paul Venture Capital, says the four-night, three-day event will attempt to explain why human beings are so dissatisfied with reality, and the role that escapism has played in literature, theater, film, television, and just about every other way we occupy or entertain ourselves. On a larger level, the conference will examine how artificial worlds have impacted the development of civilization itself.

On the Dais

The headliner (debatably) is Stephen Wolfram, developer of the enduring scientific calculation program Mathematica. Wolfram has been called one of the most original thinkers in the scientific community, as well as a victim of “intellectual egocentrism.” Wolfram’s recent book, “A New Kind of Science,“ attempts to define core principles underlying development of the universe. Weaving together disciplines as diverse as physics, cosmology, and biology, Wolfram identifies formulas that he believes prove the widespread randomness we perceive in the universe is defined by a knowable number of rules. His audaciousness clashes with scientists whose diverse disciplines he tries to knit into one. His talk should spark heated debate.

We say Wolfram is only debatably the headliner because the roster is filled with others who have the potential to be inspiring, provocative or informative. Other speakers include such diverse and accomplished players as:

·         Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, the U.C. Berkeley Ph. D. who invented numerous psycho-active drugs, including Ecstasy, the mainstay of teenage rave parties;

·         Gen. Paul Gorman (Ret.), a pioneer in the Army’s use of information technology;

     ·         Gerard Jones, former comic book creator and author of “ Why Media Violence is Good for Kids;”

·         Ray Kurzweil, inventor of speech recognition and music synthesis;

·         Judith Donath, head of MIT media labs Social Media Group;

·         Will Calhoun, a prolific drummer who has recorded with Mick Jagger, B.B. King and Harry Belafonte;

·         Jaron Lanier, who coined the term “virtual reality,” and was an early pioneer in technology-enhanced artificial worlds; and

·         Bruce Damer, founder of DigitalSpace, a company currently modeling a Mars mission for NASA. Damer has authored a book on avatars, those digital stand-ins for real people, and is among the developers of the pioneer Xerox Star interface, early progenitor of the Apple Macintosh’s desktop metaphor.

·         Also, people who attended last year advise us to stay until the end, since

they rate co-producer Bob Metcalfe’s wrap-up talk as a usual highlight.

How Pop!Tech Popped Up

Two of the technology industry’s early architects, Metcalfe and  John Sculley, founded Pop!Tech as a non-profit effort. Sculley is the former CEO of Apple Computer, and Metcalfe founded 3Com and invented Ethernet -- which Scott Briggs, an angel investor and former president of Ziff-Davis publishing, recently told Conferenza was “perhaps the biggest pure gift anyone has ever given our industry.” Metcalfe’s day job is as a general partner in Polaris Venture Partners and Sculley is a principal in Sculley Brothers investment firm.

Both Sculley and Metcalfe own homes near Camden, and they launched the conference so that, as Metcalfe says, “We could get our friends to come to Maine when it is most beautiful.” Mid-October in Camden is indeed New England at its best, and the town doesn’t seem to mind that the annual event extends the tourist season for an extra week, filling restaurants and hotels.

There’s a built-in folksiness to Pop!Tech. First, the vintage 500-seat Camden Opera House, built in the 1920s, gives the event a New England town meeting feel that can’t be replicated at fancy hotels. Attendees stay at local B&Bs, then walk the short distance through brisk autumn air to the Opera House. Instead of banquets, meals are served at local chowder and lobster diners, where small, random Pop!Tech groups dine amid locals and dais luminaries. There is one conference-wide reception dinner buffet held in the area’s aeronautical museum.

Another of Pop!Tech’s unique aspects is that speakers stick around, mingling with attendees throughout all four conference days, becoming part of the group dynamic. Larsen notes that though some on the roster command fees elsewhere upwards of $20,000, at Pop!Tech they only receive expenses and an occasional spousal free pass.

Is the Theme the Thing?

Each year, Pop!Tech has a central theme. Seven years ago, producers claim, it was the first event to explore virtual reality. In 2000, the theme was “Being human in the Digital Age.” Last year, it was supposed to be digital access “Everywhere, All the Time,” but the producer’s wisely morphed it to address the ethical and social issues following the 9/11 catastrophe. It was where some attendees first became aware of the mounting dichotomy between privacy and security.  

Many attendees will tell you, Camden doesn’t really need an annual theme. The recurring focus on the human impact of technology and social change is an endless source for speculation on where technology will go and who will follow. But working within that theme, conference producers seem to enjoy spicing things up with a bit of controversy. A couple years back, a transvestite gave an onstage demonstration of safe sex. This year, it’s the father of Ecstasy. “But somehow,” says Metcalfe, “[the conference] never goes over the line,” and the controversial parts seem to be part of a program that tends to also include the informative, the thought-provoking, and occasionally the inspirational, as last year’s attendees called both philosopher John Perry Barlow and Naisbitt.                                                                                                               

Metcalfe reports that attendance is a bit off this year for a conference that usually sells out, so registration is still available at While Metcalfe points notes many conferences are falling short of attendance goals this year, past attendees have told us that they weren’t attending in part because airline logistics have changed, making Camden more remote from the West Coast. Also, at least one regular attendee said he wasn’t going because the topic sounded like “Virtual Worlds,” which he felt was a dated and dull subject.

“’Artificial Worlds’ is completely different from virtual reality,” Larsen responded. “Human beings have never been completely satisfied with reality. Beer is an ancient invention. So are fantasies. Likewise, the impulse to make changes that make life more interesting, more exciting and fulfilling,” he maintains is part of humankind’s history.

“We've sought to create Utopias, or failing that, theme parks. We evade reality in theaters, sports stadiums, concert halls and travel,” Larsen says. “In short, we've used all our skills and brainpower to improve or duck reality. Now, we are using our newest technologies to create improved replacements for reality capable of providing total escape.”

But no matter the theme, Pop!Tech remains high on the Conferenza favorites list.





Next Up


Conferenza’s contributing editor for Life Sciences, Gail J. Pomerantz previews the Oct. 21-22 Venturewire Lifescience conference in San Francisco, and next week Conferenza co-founder Gary A. Bolles goes to Phoenix to tell you what’s on IDG’s Agenda for this year.

 ####(Conferenza Premium Reports (CPR) provides technology industry insiders with news, analysis and commentary on the industry’s top tier executive conferences. Individual subscriptions are $199 a year and great site license rates are available. Contact: Shel Israel, for additional information.)


10:59:14 AM    

  Sunday, October 06, 2002

This blog is about PopTech!

The clock is running down, and if you haven't bought your ticket, there is still time to attend PopTech!   I am told it will be a late fall, the colors will be brilliant and you need to be with us in Camden, ME on October 17, 2002 for what is certainly  the best tech conference in America.

We will be blogging live from the Camden Opera House, but here's another example of what you will be experiencing.

J. D. Lasica has done our first three interviews, and others are in progress by Ernest Svenson  and maybe... Robert Scoble .

Maybe the best thing about PopTech is that you get your mind charged for a year, and then you are ready to come again!


4:39:56 PM    

Jaron Lanier: "If there's a world in which my personal details are more available to people and I have less privacy, I'm willing to accept that if the same standard applies to corporations and the government and celebrities and whoever else is in a protected status right now."  




Jaron Lanier  -- artist, scientist, visionary, and coiner of the term "virtual reality" -- will appear at PopTech on Saturday, Oct. 19, at 8 p.m. He spoke by cell phone with journalist J.D. Lasica from a café in Tribeca, New York, on Oct. 4, 2002.



The PopTech program teases us with your presentation by saying only, A Musical Experience With Virtual Reality. What should we expect?

Oh, my, that's news to me. There is a thing I do sometimes which involves using some of the equipment from virtual reality research and stage performance, and I try to make virtual worlds that are themselves musical instruments in some way or have instruments in them. It's fun, and it works on stage, but I'm struggling with this question of how to make creative tools for invention inside virtual worlds, and these instruments are, for me, the most familiar and appropriate metaphor to start with. However, I was not planning to do it in Maine, the reason being that it's kind of a big production, and it's expensive and involves a lot of equipment, and I had been thinking of this as a much simpler affair.


Some of the PopTech people saw me play my music at the World Economic Forum, the Davos meeting that was held in New York this year, where I played a duet with a wonderful percussionist named Will Calhoun. We're trying to perform music that takes some of the elements of jazz, with extended instrumental improvisation, and combining that with some elements of electronic club music, but trying to get away from that genre's repetitiveness. But let me say that that has nothing to do with virtual reality. I'd like to give a talk as well as perform, so maybe you could pass that request along.


I'll do that. I know you've dabbled in Asian instruments as well. What other musical approaches have you tackled lately?


Unfortunately, to be a successful entertainer, you have to reduce the number of things you do so you can be described quickly and fit into people's brains quickly so people know who you are. I have not made a decision to be an entertainer, I'm doing the artist thing more. I'll have fewer people interested in me, and they'll have to do more work to understand me. I play piano concerts, I do orchestral music, opera, soundtracks, really a wide variety.


I read in a postscript you added to an interview conducted just before the Sept. 11 attacks that you're now more willing to live with surveillance. How have your attitudes about transparency, privacy or civil liberties changed as a result of Sept. 11?


My feeling is that it's possible to have varying levels of transparency in society, and what makes a society both democratic and desirable is not so much the degree of transparency but the degree to which it's symmetrical and similar for everyone. So if there's a world in which my personal details are more available to people and I have less privacy, I'm willing to accept that if the same standard applies to corporations and the government and celebrities and whoever else is in a protected status right now. We have three elites who are entitled to more privacy than you or I, certain Hollywood type people, certain aspects of government and of corporations. I'm ready to give up privacy if they are. I'm ready to do it in tandem with them.


How have you spent most of your time this year in your role as lead scientist of the National Tele-immersion Initiative working on Internet 2?


This year I've been working on thenotropics. I describe it in a chapter in a new book called The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century. It's a way of rethinking how we connect the idea of information to the physical world. The first generation of information scientists -- people like Claude Shannon -- used the metaphors that were available to them, which were all based on sending information on wires and the protocols that let you look at only one (pulse) at a time on a charged wire. … But if you contrast that to the way a human eye connects to world, where a bunch of points are stimulated at once, the eye, even in one instant, can see a whole pattern and can interpret a still image. There's a real threshold of difference to being more oriented to pre-agreed formats of information, which is the protocol, vs. interpreting a signal even if it's not with agreement on the format, and that would be called pattern recognition. Computer science as we know it is based on the extreme protocol side of the spectrum.


There are a couple of ways in which this could be highly significant. One is that right now we don't have a way of writing giant programs. Humanity's techniques for making software run out at a certain size. That's a big problem, because there's a lot of software that we should have that we don't know how to have. But we have a lot of other problems as well: with software reliability, with being able to read old data that becomes illegible. The way software is today is not acceptable. And so this is an attempt to make a new kind of software that will behave in certain ways.


For the uninitiated, what is Internet2, and when is it expected to arrive?


Internet2 is a specific project of a coalition of more than 180 universities to build advanced network applications. There's a physical network and infrastructure called Abilene, and there's a whole lot of research in specific areas, such as quality of service and things like tele-immersion, which couldn't be done on any other version of the network before. But Internet2 is not a particular technology or platform, it's more of a distributed laboratory.


Are you familiar with the conflict between the entertainment and high-tech industries that may result in restrictions in the way people can use computers, the Internet, television and so on in the name of protecting intellectual property? Where do you come down?


I've thought about it a very great deal. I've put out records on major labels myself, so I've experienced it from both sides. It's a torturous issue. If I have to choose between the positions of the record industry and Howard Rheingold, I would choose Howard. But what I would prefer to find is a middle path, a compromise. The truth is that finding that compromise is extremely difficult. By luck or fate, it's just very, very hard to come up with a technological design that can support an in-between position on this, and it's very easy to come up with a technological design that supports an extreme position in either one direction or the other. Today's situation is not working for anyone. Everyone's unhappy.


I have some ideas on what an in-between design would look like, but it would take an hour or so to describe it.


The entertainment business has problems. You have to say it's an extremely corrupt, essentially criminal business sector. I mean that in a literal sense. Everyone knows and acknowledges that payola, which is supposed to be illegal, is universally practiced by the music industry for promotion now. So we have an industry in which criminal behavior is openly accepted and standard. There has to be fundamental reform of the media industry to bring it into some sort of non-criminal mode of action. Otherwise we're going to wind up with a sort of totalitarian media regime where you just have a very small number of people who control the means of communication, and that will lead to catastrophe. You can't have democracy under that kind of system, you can't have art.


If we're going to go in the direction of intellectual property rights as the principal legal concern, it simply must be coupled with a wholesale assault on the corruption that's crucial to business practices in the entertainment industry. And that isn't happening.


In an interview in 1997, you told me you believe the Internet is not simply another medium, like movies or television -- it's the future of all communication that's not face to face. Do you still hold that view?


Well, sure. The future is ours to make. We can build whatever future we want.


That's an optimistic view in light of what's happening in Washington, where there are movements afoot to restrict the kinds of media you can receive over the Internet.


All that stuff is profoundly mistaken. The level to which it's mistaken is sort of breathtaking. What's going on is the government is acting as the whore for hire of the media and consumer electronics side of the aisle. So we have the law telling us that we're going to have digital HDTV, the law telling us which streams of information can go where, we have the law telling us what information we can distribute to each other. Because of the high degree of corruption and criminality in the entertainment industry, it's all for the protection and service of a tiny, tiny, tiny elite. It doesn't protect small-time players at all. It's infuriating, it's revolting. This tiny elite makes us all stupider with the inferior quality of their products. It dumbs everything down.


The Hollywood elite is subject to the same law of unintended consequences that everyone is. If there's a law that says, in the future we'll only be allowed digital TV sets and TV can only go across end-to-end controlled channels to these digital TV sets, the question is, what will motivate people to buy these?


From a global perspective, isn't it beyond the reach of the US government to control or hobble the Net?


It's a mixture. For instance, China is a place of authoritarian capitalism. China is the wet dream of Hollywood. In China you have a central political police authority that's willing to control the Net and shut down open things. But the whole society is structured that way, so it works. Of course, we all want China to become a more open, tolerant place. But at the same time, the particular strength of the United States has always depended on a kind of openness that the Chinese have not depended on. So you have different parts of the world trying to control Net access in different ways.



4:33:05 PM    

  Thursday, September 26, 2002


 Sept. 25, 2002



Bruce Damer


Q & A


Damer, a pioneer in the field of virtual worlds and author of "Avatars," will speak at PopTech on Saturday, Oct. 19, at 1:30 p.m. on Total Immersion in Virtual Reality and Virtual Worlds. He spoke by phone with journalist J.D. Lasica on September 25, 2002
Have you been to PopTech before?
This will be our first trip. My life partner, Galen Brandt, will be coming, too. I've heard so much about it.

What have they asked you to
talk about?
I was brought into PopTech by Ray Kurzwell as our organizations (the Contact Consortium and Digi
talSpace) have been doing virtual worlds stuff for seven years now. I even wrote a book on the subject. I have to say I'm a little skeptical of the notion that some day AI's will replace us and we'll fall in love with them or upload our consciousness. I agree with Jaron Lanier that in fact we are as a species pretty bad at writing code and that in 25 years we will still be buried under the weight of legacy systems. I have a whole barn full of computers on our property here in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California that bears living testament that progress in software is painfully slow. I wrote a lot of code for 15 years giving me a healthy respect for the gap between expectations and reality in technology. In response to last year's debate among folks like Bill Joy, Jaron, Ray and others, I wrote a piece for Ray's site that pretty much spells  my views on this.

In the '80s I wrote a GUI-based environment for Xerox, but got very tired of the metaphor of windows and pages, links, lists and trash bins. In fact, our museum is crammed full of working systems from the '70s and '80s that exhibited the beginnings of the user interface.
What's the museum and its message?

The DigiBarn
Computer Museum just opened in July. It's about 5,000 square feet of weird old computers, from Xerox Star to game systems to the Cray 1 supercomputer. It represents the Cambrian explosion of innovation that occurred from 1975 to 1990. It's also about the realization that we may be coming into a period of less innovation, which I think we are. And it looks at the speculators from the investment community who came in during the '90s and wrecked the industry. And now with software patents and large monopoly players, where are we gonna go from here, folks? You can't so easily go out, form a company, and design and build something that's kooky and innovative today.
Are you bringing any of your avatar toys to PopTech?

We have gathered together a bunch of technology that was generated in the first wave of the concept of a shared virtual world. One such system, called Traveler, works so that when you talk, your avatar representation lip-syncs with you. The company that created this tremendous environment was going into Chapter 7, so we picked up its assets two years ago, and now it's growing virally. People are hosting their own world and utilizing it around the clock. Traveler teaches you what an avatar is: You see a window on your screen and giant floating heads and one of these giant heads turns to you and
talks, and you talk back. An avatar is therefore your personification, your visual agency in cyberspace. I hope to give a tour of several other avatar and biologically inspired worlds for the audience. The entire medium is pretty well documented at the Contact Consortium site.
Do people use this for games, or chat, or other applications?

For the user, Traveler is a cocktail party, a huge social scene. They play instruments through their avatar heads, they dance. It's amazing. In some virtual worlds, you've got people who like to
talk, or build, or make social organizations happen, or who are simply flirting, or who are shy and become less shy in these worlds.
A lot of people over 30 scratch their heads and say, Why? People over 40, like me, scratch their heads and say, Not another bloody thing to learn! Let me out of here. I don't want to learn how to navigate 5,000 acres of virtual space. But in a sense, these worlds are the frontier in the interaction between humans and technology. A lot of kids can build worlds together with whole social organizations. They can do that in cyberspace but can't do that at school because they're stuck in a bloody 19th century classroom setting. These kids are using virtual worlds to learn how to live in the 21st century. There are many stories to tell here.
So you've run into kids who are into these kinds of virtual worlds?

Plenty. We're working with a large number of teachers now on the Adobe Atmosphere project, and the teachers tell us that in some instances up to a third of their class are into a multi-user online space, and they come to school and that's what they're
talking about. Like, what happened last night in XX world. But it can also come into play in the classroom: the Adobe Atmosphere platform lets them build their own spaces.
Will your virtual worlds presentation at PopTech be hands on?
We'll try to get a conference world built and then jointly
talk to the audience about it, even setting up a public workstation if the conference will permit it. I hope we get a reasonable amount of screen time to show the group what it is we're talking about.
Tell me about your new Intercommons initiative.

Virtual worlds are an example of a refreshing innovation in high technology. Many of the companies that tried to bring these worlds to the public are gone, although there are now many successful multiplayer gaming environments (that Amy Jo Kim and others will discuss at PopTech). Along with the demise of many innovative startups, we are now seeing unprecedented organizational failure across the world. Organizational failure, at the corporate or governmen
tal level, is possibly the biggest factor that will prevent us from becoming better planetary stewards and averting a global eco-disaster.


I think it is fair to say that today we have to try different business models that are more dynamic, less hierarchical, give people stakeholdership and are not subject to the same risk as shareholder companies, where a hundred-year-old company with a Trojan horse full of freebooter raiders can bite the dust in a couple of years. So what I've done with a few colleagues, and working in parallel with Larry Lessig's Creative Commons initiative, is to begin to form a new type of company we call a "commons." A commons is a merger of Deek Hock's VISA "chaordic" governance model with the online economic community and reputation system of eBay with Ray Krok's shared intellectual property in the McDonald's system and finally, with the collective buying power and quality control of a Costco. This commons is being designed to serve the needs of the cyberspace software and services community in the area of free speech and collaboration.


The commons is aimed at solving a key business problem, which is that even an open-source or other independently produced piece of software is not much use to you unless you can find someone who can help you install it, support it, and customize it. Well, how do you find these people? How can you trust them to do a good job? There have been things like, but most of those efforts are gone, and no marketplace or agora has ever really been formally instituted for people who are into software and interactivity.  That is what the Web was supposed to have brought us.
The Intercommons marketplace will have four concepts at work: (1) people, or the members; (2) opportunities, that is, I need a voice server, or I have an idea about how to do X; (3) projects, which are what happens when opportunities and people connect; and (4) the resultant tools or products, the ongoing innovation owned by the community members or in the public domain as open source. Each one of these categories will have a reputation system so you can sort through and say, 'OK, this is the most experienced member X who knows about highly regarded tool Y, and I'll hire her.' Needless to say, this will take some time to build. My co-presenter at
PopTech, Jordan Pollack, will have more to say about this topic, I'm sure.


The fundamental core focus of the Intercommons is to create independent networks of communications and collaboration to secure free speech and organization through cyberspace. Instant messaging (IM) is a key technology for the benefit of society in the future. One day you may request an ambulance through IM, or people's heart monitors may report in through an IM system. Today, most messages are sent through private, proprietary corporate networks not regulated in the public interest. One of the independent networks who have used the Intercommons IM tools is about 100 rabbis, and their community is all about discussing how evangelical Christians are converting Jews, and what to do about it? They can't use proprietary systems such as AOL IM, Yahoo Instant Messaging or anything else -- because their topic area is just too darned sensitive. They ask, who's monitoring them? They want to run their own servers and have guarantees about independence. There simply have to be alternative, independent networks or cyberspace will be completely coopted by commercial entities that are increasingly undergoing catastrophic failure themselves. Cyberspace and its future potential for good cannot be put to such risk.
Over time, that's what seems to have emerged as a common theme for the Intercommons mission: services, people and tools providing free speech and guaranteed privacy. After 9/11 there are those who fear that there are entities who would mount further attacks and others who fear the curbing of human rights and free speech by organs of our own government. Regardless of the source, fear motivates people to look seriously at their networks of communication online and say, "There is a presumption of privacy, but the only guarantee of privacy is really having the independence of administering all of our own tools." I think this is an important theme that ought to be taken up at PopTech.
So you're guaranteed privacy if you control your own tools?

We're saying that you have a better shot at it if you are sitting next to the box that's carrying your private voice channel and monitoring what's going in and out. Besides, many people don't want a free service that's pushing banner ads and collecting their profiles or allowing someone or some agency to monitor their conversations. It's unfortunate that we're in this kind of mindset, and perhaps a lot of it is really "X Files" stuff and not actually happening.
Or perhaps it is. Is the target audience of Intercommons made up of individuals or businesses?

It's aimed at free agents, who may represent themselves or small or large companies or universities and even government agencies. Digi
talSpace, our little company of 16 people which is being transformed into the commons, has done every type of software and content project you can imagine from open to proprietary source and has built up a great clientele. We're using ourselves as guinea pigs for this experiment. By the time Galen and I are at PopTech we will be "The Digital Space Commons" and be working hard on the Intercommons marketplace. We're pulling in a bunch of indie world-rock musicians who are going to be beta-testers for Larry's Creative Commons, and at the same time, indie coders, visionaries and marketers to build the Intercommons.
Any thoughts about the need to expand the public domain with efforts similar to Creative Commons?

We were involved in consulting for the Creative Commons project before its launch. One of the original ideas kicked around was for the creation of some kind of software or innovation repository where you could say, "This piece of technology is declared to be in the public domain." After several months of discussion about this, everyone involved decided that this was a highly risky approach, and that any entity that purported to be a repository of such stuff, upon the first legal attack by patent attorneys, would probably just go bust.
So Creative Commons took a different approach, then.

From that discussion, Larry Lessig and his folks decided not to pursue a patentable code repository. The Creative Commons is a licensing generator, it's not a repository. If you're an indie musician you can go there and go click, click, click, and attach a license to your music, and the license can say, "This is in the public domain for the following people: college radio, indie stations, but not for commercial buyers." The only protection it seems for software innovation is to either have a floor of lawyers, or to distribute stakeholdership in the innovation as widely as you can.
Larry Lessig is the Paul Revere of our times. We're still looking for the George Washington. You know, the English troops are here, and they're big, powerful and all around us.



5:21:41 PM    

  Thursday, September 19, 2002

Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold: "Any time you have a competition between something that requires a top-down infrastructure and between something that can grow virally from lots of individuals, the viral will win every time."

This is the first of several Q&As with speakers in advance of the PopTech conference Oct. 17-20, 2002, in Camden, Maine. Registration is still open.

Howard Rheingold -- online pioneer, author of the best-sellers Virtual Reality and The Virtual Community -- will discuss "New Human Societies in Cyberspace" on Friday morning, Oct. 18. His new book, Smart Mobs, hits bookstores beginning later this month, and with PopTech he kicks off a nationwide book tour. Rheingold spoke with journalist J.D. Lasica by phone on Sept. 12, 2002.

You've called Smart Mobs your most important book. Why do you say so?

For a couple of reasons. The proximate reason is that I've written this at a time when a lot of people have some experience and knowledge of what happened to them and their industry and to the world as a result of the PC and the Internet. Maybe, because this is very early in what I think is the third big wave of technology-enabled change, we can apply some of what we've learned to shape rather than be the victims of circumstance.

Histories are important, and books that help people think about the wider issues are important. But books that are written at a time when people might still be able to do something about an issue have more importance.

Now, although in the broadest sense I'm talking about really systemic changes that have to do with the intersection of mobile communications and pervasive computing, and some of these other methodologies I've talked about like P2P and reputation systems, there's also the matter that there's a little-known but important political and legal conflict that is coming to a climax very soon and will determine the kind of role people play in regard to technology in the future. Will we be users who actively shape the medium, from Bill Gates and Jerry Yang in his dorm room to Tim Berners-Lee at CERN? The people who use those technologies were able to create innovations that changed the technologies, made them more useful to other people, created industries. Or, will we be consumers, the way that people who use television technology have been? We sit there and passively consume content that is packaged and sold to us by others and have little or no say about it.

Some of the issues around regulation of the Internet in the mobile age, regulation of the spectrum, the issues around digital rights management, control over how people are able to use content on their computers and other digital devices -- these all have a real impact on what people will be able to do with their technologies in the future. And there is a real movement to cut off the ability of the users to innovate and return to the age when users were passive consumers.

The movement is largely being spearheaded by the large media and entertainment companies.

Yes. There are several different movements. There are the moves by the cable operators to monopolize broadband bandwidth. Remember, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to create competition that would benefit consumers in terms of lower prices and more products. Well, anyone who's a cable subscriber can tell you that has not been the case. Less visibly is what has happened to Internet Service Providers. They've consolidated and there are only a couple left. We wouldn't have the Internet, in fact, if it weren't for the common carrier provisions that forced networks to carry traffic from other networks. Those are being turned back by the cable companies and telcos, which have petitioned the FCC successfully to no longer be required to carry traffic from competing networks. And we're seeing the advent of networks that are going to discriminate about what they carry. Let's say an AOL Time Warner installs routers that discriminate, they'll be able to say, Oh, this is content from a competitor, we won't carry it on our network, go find another network. That has the potential for fragmenting the Internet in a huge way.

There is the spectrum regulation. The telcos have spent a lot of money buying chunks of spectrum from the government for the 3G networks of the future. At the same time we have these new technologies coming along -- ultra-wideband technologies, spread spectrum, software-defined radio -- and what it means is that the spectrum regulators who now favor the large vested interests have some control over innovation. These are all based on the radio technologies of the 1920s and 1930s, even though now we have technologies that don't need to be regulated that way.

And finally there's the recording industry and motion picture industry, which have succeeded in getting electronic entertainment manufactures to go along with them, which tried to stop the VCR in their time, which are trying to gain control over innovation in computer technology in the future, because computer technology will be able to carry digital versions of the content they sell. And so all of these are leading to legislation and regulation that are very little known by people. You have to be both a technology geek and a policy wonk to keep up with it.

So what I hope to do in my book is to help awaken people to what's happening.

Do you have your Smart Mobs elevator pitch down?

Not really yet. One thing I'll say is we now know that when the microprocessor and the television screen merged, we got the PC, which was a new medium that was neither a microprocessor nor a television set but had properties of its own. And when you put the PC together with the telephone network, you got the Internet, which wasn't just a PC on the telephone. So we've learned that when powerful technologies merge, new media become available, and people appropriate those media and make things from them.

We're now seeing the Internet -- which, as influential as it's been, has been limited to the desktop -- about to become untethered from the desktop and become part of the devices that we carry and eventually wear. And so I think that this intersection of mobile communications and the Internet is important enough, but at the same time there are more and more devices in the environment and in objects that will be equipped with radio communications that our devices will be able to talk to. So I think that this intersection of global communication and pervasive computing has the potential to be much more powerful than either the PC or Internet revolutions alone.

A little long for an elevator pitch

Except for the skyscraper variety. How did you come up with the title?

It's really not about the technology, it's about collective action. It's about the way people are able to do things together in ways that they weren't before because of these technologies. And I was really awakened to these potentials when I began reading things in the newspaper about the Philippines' peaceful revolution against President Estrada, in which people mobilized to telephone text messages to assemble in the streets of Manila and bring down the government. That signaled to me that something new was happening. And I began looking at the strong implications of this new technology.

Ten years ago I wrote about the implications of many-to-many communications in terms of virtual communities, people being able to communicate and organize themselves around shared interests. Now we're seeing people able to organize themselves for action in real time in the face-to-face world. So, smart mobs -- that could be a peaceful revolution in the Philippines, but it also could be terrorists using the same tools. So the title has a bit of an edge to it because I don't want to give the impression that this is a utopian technology.

What will you be discussing at PopTech? Would your writings about virtual communities be more in keeping with the conference's theme of artificial worlds?

We have to look at our experience with artificial communities to understand that people will appropriate technologies for social purposes when it's important to them. That was one of the central tenets of  The Virtual Community, that the telephone companies did not invent the Internet. The driving forces of the Internet were social communications. I'm now saying that people are appropriating mobile communication, pervasive computing, and these will be somewhat different. And the main difference is that they will be mobile and transient. So I think artificial worlds -- didn't the alphabet create an artificial world? If you're talking about the way in which people built and clumped and organized according to the symbolic communication technologies that are available, then you have to extend this notion of artificial worlds back to the alphabet and forward to mobile communities.

Are we continuing to see creative new uses of cyberspace communities evolve?

You're already seeing it. [In Smart Mobs] I wrote about some folks I met in my travels. There's a group in Helsinki, young folks who have a physical gathering place, a social club, and a virtual community. If you go to their office, which offers you a coffee machine, a kitchen, a copier , a telephone and wireless Internet access, your key has a little RF ID electronic chip in it that will let other people in your social network know that you're in the building. So if you're sitting at home and you're part of the virtual community, then that name will pop up on the buddy list on your screen. Or you'll get an SMS message. So we're now seeing people in virtual communities getting together face to face and coordinating while they're moving between places. We're seeing an extension of virtual communities into the mobile space. And we're also seeing groups of people who know each other being able to stay in touch while they're moving around.

Are you following the WiFi phenomenon? This week I got a new Titanium Powerbook and I'm intrigued by the idea that not too far down the road we'll be able to access the Internet from the neighborhood park bench.

I devote a whole chapter about that in the book. It's a perfect example of this whole regulatory regime -- the vested interests of existing corporations -- vs. the innovative technology that grows from the grassroots. These 3G networks have spent $150 billion on spectrum and the telcos are failing because it's hard to get these big top-down networks to work, and the telcos have lost a lot of their valuation and they're servicing this huge debt. At the same time, a million and a half WiFi cards are sold every month, and people are beginning to piece together grassroots networks. Any time you have a competition between something that requires a top-down infrastructure and something that can grow virally from lots of individuals, the viral will win every time. The Web would never have been built by a central committee. It was built by a million geeks putting up Web sites.

What kind of mobile devices do you use?

I'm not that much of a road warrior. My main use of wireless technology is to sit on my lawn and do my work from there. I have a simple Apple Airport wireless network in my home, and a mobile phone when I travel. When I started writing the book I started traveling with a PDA, and found that I'm just not a PDA person. I'm not on the road enough for it to matter.

Do you think we'll see a generational difference, with young people embracing mobile technologies at a much greater rate?

Clearly, yes. First of all, the people who drove the text messaging revolution in Scandinavia and in Asia were the youth. Subcultures have grown up among youth around the use of text-based messaging. We're seeing a social networking around youth everywhere in which they teach each other how to use the features of mobile phones. More adults than youths are ignorant of how to do more than make a voice phone call with their mobile phones. So as in a previous generation, when e-mail came along when they were in college, and it's something they brought with them when they moved into the business world, we'll see this from the youths who started out becoming very adept at using mobile communications when they were teenagers. I think that may be one reason why text messaging never took off in the U.S. It was not pitched at 15-year-old girls, it was pitched at 35-year-old guys in business suits.

Tell us a little about Brainstorms.

I have to preface this by saying I've created many virtual communities and have been involved for a long time in the WELL and others. There are a variety of different ways you can govern virtual communities. I am all for and been the founder of freewheeling communities where anything goes, including Electric Minds. But I have found for my own purposes that, No. 1, to have a group of smart people to act as a sounding board and virtual think tank and help me find out things I wouldn't know otherwise, and No. 2, to have a place to socialize and meet people and make friends, there are some limitations to these open, freewheeling networks. And that is that there are some people out there who have social problems and bring those social problems online and create flame wars and unpleasant social interactions.

I simply wanted to revert to the old BBS days, where it was like Joe's Bar. If you go by Joe's rules, you have a great time. If you break the rules, you get thrown out. So I created just a simple barrier to this community, which was, E-mail me and tell me why you'd make a valuable contribution to it. And I found that just the simple barrier kept out 99.99 percent of the vandals whom you'd find in Usenet or in AOL chat rooms or on IRC. So I'm all for places like Slashdot, where anything goes and you can use the reputation filter, but I created Brainstorms precisely to have something that would be more civil, to raise the bar for the level of discourse.

Incidentally, although I likened it to Joe's Bar and I made the rules up, two things happened with Brainstorms. One, I got tired of being the cop, and second, the community took on a life of its own and now pretty much governs itself. It has a steady population of between 500 and 700 people with a large international contingent.

I've been interested since Electric Minds, seven or eight years ago, in the potential of Web-based asynchronous conferencing to build on the kind of discourse that thrived in text only. We can now make every post a little Web page, and that includes in-line graphics, and links, and formatted text, and that enables people to have discussions on a whole new level. It used to be in the old days you could contest something but you couldn't post a link to the U.S. Census Bureau. But now that we have everything from Google to blogs to back up our assertions, we can have a more informed discourse.

Might there be some participants at PopTech who would be worthy members of Brainstorms?

Oh, absolutely. And I sometimes forget, in the heat of the moment, when I speak I invite everyone to take a look at the Web site to see the description or simply e-mail me.

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