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April 20 2012

16:17

January 16 2012

20:49

Network knowledge

I’m a bit late in blogging about and urging you to read David Weinberger’s new book, Too Big to Know. That’s because I couldn’t find my oft-underlined, much-dogeared galley, which I soaked in as soon as I got it.

David is an intellectual hero of mine. He is a coauthor of the seminal work of net culture, The Cluetrain Manifesto. His subsequent books, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined and Everything is Miscellaneous taught me to look at the world differently (yes, it’s partly his fault) and to understand the changing architecture of relationships, information, and now knowledge. He is generous with his thoughts. He challenges me (when I presented Public Parts at Harvard, where David moderated, he pushed me to consider what I was saying about the relationship of ethics and norms and he likely influenced me to consider that as a next project … his fault, again). He is open and curious. He does this with charm and unwarranted but sincere self-deprecation. All that comes across in his books.

Knowledge is an awfully big topic, the biggest. As he started this project, I heard David fret over that. But he succeeded in bringing new perspective even to this. The nut of it:

As knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it. It’s not that the network is becoming a conscious super-brain. Rather, knowledge is becoming inextricable from — literally unthinkable witout — the network that enables it. Our task is to learn how to build smart rooms — that is, how to build networks that make us smarter, especially since, when done badly, networks can make us distressingly stupider.

I interpreted that through one of my favorite (and, sorry, oft-repeated) memes these days: the Gutenberg parenthesis. Among other things, it argues that before Gutenberg, knowledge was about preserving the wisdom of the ancients. In the Gutenberg parenthesis, knowledge sprung from contemporary authors, experts, and institutions. After the parenthesis, as I see Weinberger’s thesis, knowledge becomes province of the network. It isn’t resident only in single facts or artifacts (that is, books) but is a much more complex prism that can be seen from many angles and changes its appearance across them. Knowledge becomes less static, more living. David says it better:

Knowledge now lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain knowledge. Knowledge is now a property of the network, and the network embraces businesses, governments, media, museums, curated collections, and minds in communication.

Knowledge until now was about creating and controlling scarcity. Up to now, says David, “[w]e’ve managed the fire hose by reducing the flow. We’ve done this through an elaborate system of editorial filters that have prevented most of what’s written from being published . . . Knowledge has been about reducing what we need to know.” But now, of course, information is abundant and only growing — multiplying — as we invent more ways to create and discover and capture and analyze and question. That’s what freaks the old — pardon my choice of word — sphincters of information, the controllers and owners of it. This conflict erupted when Gutenberg invented the printed book and scholars feared we’d end up with too many of them. It emerges again now that Berners-Lee has invented the web.

David grapples with the history of our perception of facts, then wrestles with the idea that we “are losing knowledge’s body: a comprehensible, masterable collection of ideas and works that together reflect the truth about the world. . . . We’ll still have facts. We’ll still have experts. We’ll still have academic journals. We’ll have everything except knowledge as a body. That is, we’ll have everything except what we’ve thought of as knowledge.”

Knowledge, he says, “has been an accident of paper.” We convinced ourselves that a set and knowable worldview was possible because the media into which we put our information created that comforting expectation. Same goes for news: “All the news that’s fit to print” is the greatest conceit imaginable: that everything that matters happens to fit in what we can afford to produce. We know so much better now.

These are profoundly disruptive ideas about ideas. It helps that they come from someone who presents them via doubt rather than dogma. David is, like me, essentially an optimist, but he sees the choices we have and the dangers that present themselves if we chose the wrong paths.

At the end, he examines the characteristics of the net and its knowledge: abundance (“The new abundance makes the old abundance look like scarcity”); links (“Links are subverting not just knowledge as a system of stopping points but also the credentialing mechanism that supported that system”); no need to get permission (“Let anyone publish whatever they want … and the Knowledge Club loses its value”); publicness (somebody ought to write a book about that); and the unresolved nature of questions (“The old enlightenment ideal was far more plausible when what we saw of the nattering world came through filters that hid the vast, disagreeable bulk of disagreement”). “What we have in common,” he concludes, “is not knowledge about which we agree but a shared world about which we will always disagree.”

So the idea that things will settle down and opinions will coalesce around shared facts once we get through this maelstrom of change is a fantasy born of experience but blown apart by the network. So will the future sound like the Fox-News-and-comment-snark present? It needn’t if we adapt our norms to a new reality and if, as David says, we build our networks well. That means building them around new opportunities, for example: “The solution to the information overload problem is to create more information: metadata.” We don’t need more filters, more gatekeepers, more mediators. We need smarter, bigger brains digging through more and better information. Don’t recreate old models. Disrupt them.

David concludes: “We thought that knowledge was scarce, when in fact it was just our shelves that were small. Our new knowledge is not even a set of works. It is an infrastructure of connection.”

Chew on those wires for a while.

March 12 2010

16:53

Freedom Fone Promotes Information for All in Africa

Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) strategies are viewed in many contemporary business circles as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. BoP refers to the 2.6 billion people who live below the $2 a day breadline and many business strategists argue that if targeted correctly, these consumers can offer businesses access to one of the fastest growing markets. Even if the price of products and services has to be reduced, profit can be made up in volume.

A more neutral view of BoP strategies is that they are not simply a means to make millions. Instead, they involve a pragmatic appreciation that, through commercial profit making activities, sustainable solutions can be developed that help alleviate poverty. The poor can be incorporated into the system in a mutually beneficial manner -- not only as consumers but also as producers, partners, entrepreneurs and innovators.

The Freedom Fone Strategy

Freedom Fone, a Knight-funded project, has a BoP strategy focused on building and promoting an open source software platform for information sharing that is intuitive, cost-conscious, Internet-independent and that ultimately targets all kinds of phone users. Deployers of the Freedom Fone platform can be small or large NGO's or service organizations, or even individual information activists. The goal is to broaden the base of audio information providers and facilitate the development of two-way communications within communities that have traditionally been underprivileged, marginalized and sometimes even stigmatized.

The Freedom Fone platform can be used to assist with education, learning, health care and medical support for chronic diseases like HIV/Aids, TB and malaria. Voice menus conveniently provide information on demand services, making them a useful additional channel for community radio stations and emergency response initiatives. It can be used to provide information on a full spectrum of issues, including sanitation, the environment, agriculture, fishing, business, finance, marketing, community, arts and culture news. Its 'leave-a-message' and SMS functionality can also be leveraged for citizen journalism.

Essentially, Freedom Fone is a simple but novel medium for addressing social development. The currency we are working with is knowledge, the tool we are using is the mobile phone, and the mobile function we primarily leverage is audio, through Interactive Voice Response (IVR).

Freedom Fone has focused on knowledge sharing because, in a globalized information age, access to relevant information is pivotal to development and vital for survival. Content is king and knowledge is power! However, the people who need information the most are often the ones at the bottom of the pyramid, and they tend to remain on the fringes of society. For instance, in developing countries, information flow is often blocked by restricted infrastructure, lack of resources and limited, unreliable access to computers, email and internet. Other factors such as language barriers and low literacy levels exist. In certain developing countries, this information alienation is further compounded by restrictive and authoritarian governments.

Mobile Phones Are Universal

Freedom Fone has focused on the mobile phone as the medium of communication because, according to a UN report, 60 percent of the world's population has mobile phones. By 2009 there were already over 4.5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in circulation -- and developing countries account for over two thirds of these mobile phones.

In contrast, only 25 percent of the world's population has Internet access. In Africa, there is only a 6.8 percent internet penetration rate. Thus the wide use of mobile phones bridges the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Their use cuts across the digital divide and they have the potential to act as information access equalizers. For example, in Zimbabwe, barely 5 percent of Zimbabweans have access to the internet, but there are over 3 million mobile phones contracts in a country of 11 million, which represents a penetration rate of roughly 27 percent. In South Africa -- which offers a good indication of future development patterns in Africa -- only 7 percent of the population has Internet access, but there are approximately 36 million active cell phone users, which is roughly 80 percent of the population.

To address the limited access to, and the high cost of, Internet connectivity in many developing countries, Freedom Fone has been designed so that it does not require any access to the Internet to function. The Freedom Fone server can be connected to mobile phone SIM cards, landlines and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) numbers. Callers can phone in from a landline, basic mobile phone, or soft phone like Skype. If uninterrupted power is provided, the system can be available to callers 24 hours a day, providing a valuable information on demand channel, as well as a vehicle through which the public can contribute information or queries 24/7.

Freedom Fone Features

A number of Freedom Fone's core features focus on interactive voice menus and callback functionality. By consciously marrying the mobile phone with IVR, Freedom Fone extends this previously business-oriented tool into the arena of social development and social media. By simplifying the user interface and minimizing the technical alternatives, we predict information providers will find building voice menu-based information services intuitive rather than intimidating, and cost-effective rather than costly.

Providing an alternative to the limitations imposed by the 160 characters allowed in an SMS is likely to be liberating. Freedom Fone provides a do-it-yourself platform for increased two way communication, facilitating the contribution of rich audio files by both the operator and caller. Its audio orientation offers similarities with radio programming -- however there are dramatic differences in the start up costs, required technical know-how and government regulation.

It is also interactive, as it enables end users to become information providers by contributing questions, audio content and feedback in response to the voice menus. Audio files also have the enormous benefit of surpassing the issues of literacy, going beyond language differences, as people can create and manage information in their own dialect. For deployments in Africa, audio is also strongly aligned with the oral traditions of story-telling.

Importantly, Freedom Fone has been designed to run on (and with) low-powered equipment to facilitate its deployment using solar power.

As Freedom Fone services the BoP, it is essential that deployments offer affordable, cost-effective access to information. Sadly, in Zimbabwe the cost of local mobile calls is $0.25 per minute, making call-in costs a major challenge for local deployment. The same hurdle does not exist for deployments in East Africa, where competition exists between mobile network providers and call costs are minimal. In countries where VoIP is legal, further opportunities exist because VoIP cuts costs and facilitates scalability.

The Freedom Fone platform offers the potential for cost recovery through advertising, which can be incorporated into the voice menus as short audio clips. Another option are premium numbers which can be negotiated with mobile network operators. In time, we hope to source funding to build features that facilitate micro-payments for accessing voice menu content or receiving SMS updates.

Freedom Fone aims to put information in the hands of the public by simplifying and popularizing information outreach via IVR and SMS. It is a tool for content creation, by the people and for the people. It shifts BoP solutions beyond profits by giving the punch of informative power to the people.

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