Shortcuts: ladder or hack?

We’re all looking for shortcuts – ways to reach our destination at lower cost (time or money) and allow us to do more.

But how can we tell whether the shortcut is a ladder (a new way and better way to get our job done) or a hack – a shortcut that saves you time now but that you (or others) pay more for later?

Here are four questions to ask about shortcuts, courtesy of Seth Godin:

1. Is it repeatable? Non-repeatable shortcuts are interesting, but you can’t build a life or a future around them.

2. Is it non-harmful? What are the downstream effects of this shortcut? … I want to know that it’s not going to hurt me or hurt the people I care about it… or break our culture.

3. Is it additive? If I get to do it again, does it better over time?

4. Can it survive the crowd? Does it have to be a secret?

The internet offers all of these short-term hacks, all these things that might make you feel like you’re winning in the short run, but often they don’t hold up to the light of day, they hurt you or other people, you can only do them once, and they’re not aligned with where you’re going and how you’re going to get there…

The long short-cuts are the best possible short-cuts.

Seth GodinAkimbo Sauce and Godiva

Peter Morville on Category and Taxonomy (1)

While findability comes first, we must also remember that categories are about more than retrieval. Classification helps our users to understand.

Through splitting, lumping and labeling, we reveal choices and invite questions.

Of course, all taxonomies are imperfect, as is the language they’re built on… like maps and myths, taxonomies hide more than they reveal. They bury complexity to tell a story, and they always miss someone out. Some things, like luggage, get lost by accident, while others – people, places, ideas – are buried by design.

Either way, each glitch in the matrix subtly changes understanding and behaviour, which is why this work has moral weight. Classification has consequences, as Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star argue in Sorting Things Out:

“Each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing – indeed, it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous – not bad, but dangerous.”

Peter MorvilleIntertwingled (Amazon link here)

The new possible

My sister (let’s call her Sharky) bought me a book for Christmas.

Sharky lives in Argentina.

She bought the book from a shop in the UK.

I’m on holiday in a remote part of Indonesia.

She bought the book, told me about it, and I was reading it, in less than ten minutes.

This is the new reality – actually, not even that new anymore. Any information product (book, film, music, software, design) can go anywhere, in effectively no time.

The new possible consists of the things that this reality enables – not just instant access to information products, but information to go into products (3d printing designs, specifications) or for the delivery of products and services (your exact requirements or preferences, your real-time location, your purchase history, your credit rating).

What becomes possible in your field when the information is so relevant and so available, when the transaction becomes so fast, so frictionless?

AirBnB, and Uber are cannonical examples of the new possible, to which I’d add the fact that this year, Sharky bought me a Christmas present.

Scrapbook: Niall Ferguson on culture, text-for-profit, libraries, search and literacy

Niall Ferguson was speaking at the Long Now Foundation, responding to a question from Stewart Brand about how ads and the profit-motive influenced the nature of search and the internet echo-chamber.

Google and Facebook in particular are platforms driven by user-engagement and time-on-platform (the source of their ad revenue) and as a result tend to give us more of what we like or agree with already, filtering out sources that might challenge our views. 

If you look back on the way the printing press developed, there was a for profit wing that ultimately did finance itself by selling ads, and it evolved into newspapers and magazines.

But that was only a fraction of all the printed content that was out there. Most printed content was accessible free through things called libraries, and libraries were non profit.

Public libraries gradually began to spread in the protestant realms because remember, Protestantism insisted on literacy. A country like mine, Scotland, went from very low literacy to very high literacy because of the reformation. Schools had libraries. Books were regarded as a public good. And this meant that most printed content was not provided by profit making institutions. It was essentially free, and crucially, catalogued in increasingly effective and – I’ll call them objective – ways.

Anybody who’s spent time in one of the great libraries of the world, say the Cambridge University Library, knows that the books are sorted in such a way that you find the book that you’re after, and next to it are books on similar topics. This is an incredibly valuable thing if you’re doing serious research. 

Google is not like that. You may think that Google is like that, but you’re wrong, because that is not how search works…

Niall Ferguson – The Long Now Foundation – Networks and Power

Deep literacy: Kevin Kelly on more than reading

… producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Real literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permitted ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that made it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one.

Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. Where is the equivalent in video?

Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film.

Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And that would be useful in video as well.

And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of courses we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorise using a selected word or phrase for later viewing.

All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists.

These tools, more than reading, are the foundations of literacy.

Kevin KellyThe Inevitable

In their hands

Make something people can use.

Put it in their hands.

See what happens.

If they’re eager to pay – attention, time, money – you’re onto something.

Watch them. Listen to them. Tweak it. Make more of it. See what they think.

If they tell their friends – and if their friends tell their friends – then you’ve got it.

What change do you seek in the world? Who are the people you seek to serve?

You’ve got it when they’ve got it.

You’ll know you’ve got it when you meet someone for the first time, and the thing you made is already in their hands.

Work: generative

This is work that creates possibilities. It’s open ended, and while it might close some avenues down it generates even more new options, opportunities, connections and combinations.

Generative work includes:

  • Reading widely and omnivorously
  • Meeting new people
  • Bringing groups of people together
  • Taking the next step to make an idea real: write it down, scope it out, say the wordsfind (or make) the scene… **
  • Going to a new place
  • Doing a new thing – or an old thing in a new way
  • Allowing space for thought, renewal, unexpected connections
  • Anything that starts with a ‘what happens if I…’ (contact that author, try that app, say yes to that invitation, ask them if they can they can do something different, introduce a sense of play, deliberately model generosity, say these words, ask this question…)

We need to build generative activity into our lives and work – it enriches the ecosystem and expands the hinterland of everything else we do.

**This might end up in shutting the idea down of course… which creates space for a new generation.

Network opportunities

One telephone – in the whole world – is useless. Who would you call?

The more telephones there are – and especially the more telephones that belong to people you want to talk to – the more useful they become.

This is Metcalfe’s law: the value of a network increases exponentially with the size of the network.

It works for Lego, too. Add a brick, and you add many more possibilities.**

And it’s true for languages – broadly speaking, if more people speak a given language, the more opportunities knowing it creates.

Books also exist as a kind of network. They don’t just depend on other books to enrich their meanings. Books need other books to mean at all. Books make it easier for there to be more books, and if more people read them it makes your books more valuable.

Most things work better with other things – and it’s truer than ever as our networked age allows more people, things and ideas to connect than ever before.

Some ways to add value to a network:

  • Expand the network – add a new node and increase the possible connections
  • Highlight the best parts – not all books are equal
  • Strengthen important connections.
  • Make maps: find and share ways through the network that make it more useful, richer in meaning, faster, more fun
  • Explore: find lost treasures at the periphery and bring them in
  • Create: look for missing pieces – points of possibility that would add a lot of value to the network if they existed – then make them

** Two eight-stud Lego bricks of the same color can be combined in 24 different ways. Three eight-stud bricks can be combined in 1,060 ways. There are more than 915 million combinations possible for six 2 x 4 LEGO bricks of the same color. (Lego Land fun facts)

GNU-GPL – a base of code

Richard Stallman famously wrote the GNU GPL, which is a license based on copy-left, not copyright. His position is the freedom to work with computers and work with software and work with software is hindered by copyright.

That in fact these are useful tools, and there are people who want to make useful tools and remix the useful tools of people who came before. Everything you use in the internet – that website that you visited that’s running on Apache, that email protocol, you’re able to do it because so many other entities were able to share these ideas.

So the way copy-left works is that if you use software that has a GPL license to make your software work better, it infects your software, and you also have to use the GPL license.

So if it works right, it will eat the world. So as the core of software in GNU gets bigger and deeper, it becomes more and more irresistible to use it. But as you use it the software you add to it also becomes part of that corpus.

And if enough people contribute to it, what we’ll end up with is an open, inspectable, improvable base of code that gives us a toolset for weaving together the culture we want to be part of.

Seth Godin Akimbo, November 21 2018 – Intellectual Property

An open, inspectable, improvable base of code.

For software.

For tools for making software.

How about for educational outcomes? For assessments?

For a set of tools and resources for running an organisation?