Open Thinkering


Hog roasts, Amazon EC2 and traffic lights.

I feel that these images, some of the last taken by photojournalists Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington in Libya before their deaths earlier this week, link in some way to the following. I’m just not sure how to work them in whilst retaining any form of subtlety.

Question: What links a hog roast, the recent Amazon EC2 outage and traffic lights?

Answer: The notion of Civil Society.

The London School of Economics’ Centre for Civil Society defines it thus:

Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organizations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organizations, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups. (via Wikipedia, my emphasis)

At lunchtime today my family and I are heading down to the pond and newly-formed wildlife reserve behind the small cul-de-sac in which we live. The pond was formed by some kind of mining-related sinkhole that I don’t pretend to understand. What I do understand is that it’s now a beautiful space that adds value to our life (and to our house). Today is the opening ceremony at which a hog roast will be enjoyed free-of-charge, with people coming together to celebrate the space. More spaces for meeting means a greater likelihood of unmediated interaction.

Last March I was in Turkey with my good friend and collaborator Nick Dennis at the request of EUROCLIO which is doing some work on behalf of the Dutch government. Nick and I helped train History teachers on the use of technology in education (see presentation here), part of a many-pronged strategy by part of the Dutch government aiming to raise the level of Turkish ‘civil society’ in preparation for the latter eventually joining the European Union.

With the Turkish educators, technology was a trojan horse as the whole point of the programme was to get across the ‘multiperspectivity’ of History and, once that was established, equip them to be able to communicate that to the next generation. The only other strategy I can remember from the ten or so mentioned was that of making sure that traffic lights both worked properly and were sequenced in ways that were ‘European standard’ (i.e. enabled a good flow of traffic). It’s the little things that make a big difference.

So far, so obvious. The wildlife reserve and our work in Turkey fairly relate directly to the definition of Civil Society given earlier. But what about the Amazon EC2 outage? What’s that got to do with anything?

First, some context:

Cloud computing is all very well until someone trips over a wire and the whole thing goes dark.

Reddit, Foursquare and Quora were among the sites affected by Amazon Web Services suffering network latency and connectivity errors this morning, according to the company’s own status dashboard.

Amazon says performance issues affected instances of its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) service and its Relational Database Service, and it’s “continuing to work towards full resolution”. These are hosted in its North Virginia data centre. (TechCrunch)

Having recently considered moving this blog to Amazon EC2 because it’s ‘never down’ I breathed a sigh of relief. Bluehost may be slower at serving up content than it used to be but at least it’s never completely failed me. Outsourcing via set-it-and-forget-it only works if you’ve got a backup plan.

All of this reminded me of which, no doubt, has received a boost because of the EC2 outage:

Unhosted is an open web standard for decentralizing user data. On the unhosted web, data is stored per-user, under the user’s control. That’s where it belongs.

I’m no fan of privatising everything within society but I do think that sometimes we rely on the state and big businesses a little too much to provide things we can organize through communities and networks. Despite the #fail that is the Big Society in the UK the idea behind it remains sound. Unhosted is one way in which we can developers can come together as a force for good in the online sphere – just as the wildlife reserve and training Turkish educators were strategies in other spheres.

By way of conclusion, therefore, I’d like to challenge you. Be the change you want to see in the world. Small changes can have large symbolic actions and lead to a domino effect. Take next week’s #purposedpsi event in Sheffield, for example. There’ll only be about 50-60 people but, due to networks (and networks of networks) we’ll have a disproportionate effect on people’s thinking and conversation. There’s a few tickets left if you’d like to join us.

So, get out there and do something! Go and make the world a better place.

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