I first wrote about this proposal two years ago. But I’m reposting it, since the idea is even more relevant now, as there has been further development of virtual communications – Skype and Google translators, more varieties of videoconferencing both in the cloud and through services like FaceTime, and even video through augmented reality devices, like Microsoft HoloLens.
If you’re interested in joining and helping to build this virtual metropolis, please contact me.
People who live in big metropolises, like New York, London or Hong Kong, often say that they can always find someone within a few miles who has a special skill they need to complete some project or build a business. I’ve pointed out that the close proximity of millions of people with so many different skills is part of what has made cities successful economic engines during the industrial era.
When the population of your town is just a few thousand, there is a much smaller likelihood you’ll find the special skill you need nearby – and thus you’ll be less likely to achieve what you have in mind.
In the US alone, the Census Bureau has noted in its report “Patterns of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Population Change” that 10% of Americans live in one of the 576 small urban areas (where there is at least one urban cluster of less than 50,000, but at least 10,000 people). That’s about 32 million people.
Another 6% lived in neither major metropolitan areas nor even these small urban areas. That’s just under 20 million people.
In this century, with broadband Internet, physical proximity is no longer necessary for people to collaborate and share their skills in a common project. Yet the small towns of these more than 50 million people are mostly not connected to each other.
So here’s my wild idea for the day: why not create a virtual metropolis of millions from the people in the small towns and communities of the countryside?
Imagine if even half of those 20 million (or 52 million) people who live outside the big metropolises could work together and be combined to act as if they were physically next door – while not actually living in such crowded conditions.
Such a network or virtual aggregation of small towns would offer their residents a much higher chance of succeeding with their business ideas and making a better living. If someone, for example, had the engineering talents to design a new product, that person might more likely find the necessary marketing talent somewhere in that network of millions of people.
Clearly, anyone connected to the Internet can try to reach out to anyone else whether that person lives in a small town or a big city.
But a network of small towns alone might encourage greater collaboration because of the shared background of country life and the perceived greater friendliness (and less wariness) of non-urban residents. In most small towns, people are used to working with each other. This would just be a virtual extension of the same idea.
Initially, of course, people would feel most comfortable with those in the same region, such as within North America. Over time, as people interact more with each other on a global basis, that comfort level will expand.
Whether on a regional or global basis, this virtual metropolis could compete on a more even playing field and even establish a unique brand for the people and companies located there. It would make it possible for rural residents to keep their quality of life and also make a decent living.
If you’ve heard about blockchain at all, it is most likely because of Bitcoin, the alternative non-state sanctioned currency. But the uses of blockchain go beyond Bitcoin.
If you don’t know about blockchains, there are many sources of information about them, including Wikipedia. For a little, but not too much detail, I like this explanation:
“The Blockchain is a … database technology, a distributed ledger that maintains and ever growing list of data records, which are decentralised and impossible to tamper with. The data records, which can be a Bitcoin transaction or a smart contract or anything else for that matter, are combined in so-called blocks. In order to add these blocks to the distributed ledger, the data needs to be validated by 51% of all the computers within the network that have access to the Blockchain.
“The validation is done via cryptography, which means that a mathematical equation has to be solved … Once the validation is done, the Block will receive a timestamp and a so-called hash. This hash is then used to create the next block in the chain. If even one bit in the block changes, the hash will change completely and as a result, all subsequent blocks in the chain will change. Such a change has to be validated again by 51% of all the nodes in the network, which will not happen because they don’t have an incentive to work on ‘old’ blocks in the chain. Not only that, the blockchain keeps on growing, so you would require a tremendous amount of computing power to achieve that, which is extremely expensive. So it is simply not worth it to change any data. As a result, it is nearly impossible to change data that has been recorded on the Blockchain.”
The protection of the digital material from snoopers, the strong validation and the decentralization of blockchains are especially attractive.
More than a year ago, R3, a consortium of banks and related companies from around the world – now numbering about four dozen – started to develop their own blockchain.
Sure, it’s understandable that bankers are interested in this technology. But artists?
I suppose some artist will, at some point, figure out how to use blockchain as a new art form – dropping little pieces of an artistic puzzle in a chain. But that’s not what the usual interest is about.
Instead, since the digital age started, quickly followed by widespread digital piracy then reduced incomes for many artists, people have wondered how artists will be able to continue their artistic work – the long history of “starving artists” aside.
Blockchains have been gaining adherents as a way to help establish ownership and subsequent payment for use.
In their book, the Tapscotts describe a virtual nirvana for artists, built atop blockchains which would enable artists to register their works, enter into “smart contracts” and generally be at the center of the creative ecosystem, rather than as the lowest person on the totem pole.
There are already some startups providing blockchain services for intellectual property, such as Blockai and Ascribe .
And blockchain technology, in theory, could be beneficial for artists. But there are practical obstacles in making this happen and, in the long run, a fundamental flaw in the plan.
Let’s start with the practical question as to how this gets set up.
Here are just a few questions, off the top of my head.
Who does it? Without getting into the technical weeds here, there is also a question as to what characteristics a particular blockchain service would have – yes, there are options. How can the “platform” provider be reimbursed? Do you start from scratch or try to negotiate with agencies already serving related functions, like ASCAP? Who polices all this to make sure that the record established in the blockchain is actually being used to compensate artists?
The bigger issue is treating ideas or creativity as “intellectual
property” – in economics terms, as a private good, instead of a public good. As
we have learned, most inventions and creations are not the result of a
solo hermit genius, but are the result of direct or indirect
collaboration. So this concept of the idea as private property of the
first person (or corporation) to claim it is debatable. New ideas and
creative works may be more public, than private, good.
As Thomas Jefferson, amateur scientist and political philosopher, said some time ago:
“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
I’m looking at this issue in a very pragmatic, non-ideological way. Simply, although technology may make it feasible to track ideas and government laws may try to put a private label on them, this often doesn’t work because it goes against the nature of the good. Some things might start out as private enterprises, but if they are in essence public goods, the private enterprise will fail.
Consider the development of mass transit in many cities, mostly which were franchises to private companies until those companies realized they couldn’t really make a profit in the business.
I’m not sure what the answer is to prevent artists from starving because they can’t live on the money they receive while being artists. Blockchain may have a role. But the solution will take more than just continuing to think about the problem in a fundamentally flawed way as the protection of private property.
If you’re not an artist, you need to understand this also affects you. How people get enough income to live comfortably is an ever increasing problem in an age where an ever increasing number of people have to be creative, not just making music and art, but all kinds of ideas and works.
Four years ago, I wrote a blog post on this subject when massive open online
courses (MOOCs) were beginning to be the hot item of discussion. Not
surprisingly, some disillusionment followed the hype as people realized there
was a low completion rate for these courses and services, like Udemy, felt it
was necessary to do some course correction.
Some of the disillusionment came
from the expectation that this form of education would be just an electronic
version of what has gone on in traditional classrooms for hundreds of years.
I call that “horseless carriage”
thinking – when people don’t realize that there’s a new thing, a car, which is
like what was in the past, but is sufficiently different that it’s not just a
carriage powered by something other than a horse. If you thought “horseless
carriage”, you wouldn’t have anticipated the growth of suburbia and all the
other changes wrought by automobile ownership.
Anyway, despite the disappearance of
MOOCs from the hype-o-sphere of the general news media, the number of MOOCs
continues to grow.
“The critics are right that most
people who start a MOOC don’t finish: just 4% of Coursera users who watch at
least one course lecture go on to complete the course and receive a credential.
However, given the large number of users involved, the absolute reach of MOOCs
is still significant. For instance, more than one million people have completed
a Coursera course since its inception in 2012, with over 2.1 million course
completions as of April 2015.”
It is also interesting that
educators are disproportionately the users of these courses. Daniel Thomas
Seaton and colleagues reported:
“Surveys of 11 MITx courses on edX
in spring 2014 found that one in four (28.0 percent) respondents identified as
past or present teachers. … Although they represent only 4.5 percent of the
nearly 250,000 enrollees, responding teachers generated 22.4 percent of all
discussion forum comments.”
As I wrote last time, one reasonable
analogy to the problems facing higher education is to compare it to the
challenge faced by theaters in the 19th century. During that period, every city
of any consequence had one or more theaters that were the venue for actors,
singers and other live performers.
Then along came recorded music,
later the movies and ultimately television. Those technological innovations
made it possible to deliver performances from the best actors and singers
without requiring them to be physically present. In addition, the revenue that
this form of recorded entertainment could generate was much greater than that
of any local live theater. Movie and record companies used that extra revenue
to provide “production values” and elaborate staging that wasn’t
possible in the local live theater.
The result: most of those live stage
theaters disappeared or became movie theaters (or car parks, like this one in
Now, technology makes it possible to
deliver on a large scale at least that part of a college education that
consists of watching a professor deliver lectures in front of a classroom.
Again, it is unlikely that the local university or college will be able to
match this global delivery or the “production values” that could
enhance these online courses.
Of course, we still have Broadway
plus a few successful regional theaters. So too there will be Harvard, MIT,
Princeton, Stanford and the like. But most colleges may find it increasingly
difficult to justify their continued existence using the current approach.
We’re already seeing the pattern set
by theaters replicated in higher education among the providers of MOOCs. Online
Course Reports described the pattern this way:
“Twenty percent of massive open
online courses offered by U.S. News and World Report’s Top 100 National
Universities are offered by the Top 5 universities on that list. Over half
(i.e., 56%) of MOOCs offered by those National Universities are offered by
schools in the Top 20. Almost 90 percent (i.e., 87.6%) of all MOOCs available
are offered by schools within the Top 50.”
“Course offerings per institution
drop off exponentially at a rate of -700% after those Top 50: that’s an average
of 21 MOOCs per university in the Top 50 decaying to an average of 3 MOOCs per
university in the bottom 50. Comparing these averages, we see a massively
unequal distribution of massive open online courses toward some of the most
expensive, highly valued, and heftily-endowed universities in the world.”
Although the market for MOOCs is not
quite the same as the market for traditional higher education, it is hard to
imagine that enrollment in less “highly valued” institutions will not be
affected by the alternatives now open to others. This is especially likely to
occur as those institutions provide credentials that used to be available only
by paying high fees to attend college on campus.
As in my post of four years ago, I’d
note that one of the major obstacles to these changes being more widespread is
the fact that that colleges have had the combined role of both delivering an
education to their students and certifying that their students mastered that
education (i.e., they provide college degrees as credentials).
But things are changing even on that
front. As Class Central has reported
“One of the big trends last year
 was MOOC providers creating their own credentials: Udacity’s Nanodegrees,
Coursera’s Specializations and edX’s Xseries.
For Coursera and Udacity, these credentials have become a main source of
“With [the online degree in] CS, you
can join computing professionals from more than 80 countries who are earning
their M.S. on their own time, in their own homes, and for a total cost of about
Employers who used to shy away from
candidates with online degrees from for-profit organizations, like Phoenix,
might look differently on an online degree from a Georgia Tech or a Coursera
credential from a course provided by Princeton.
Overall, the way that MOOCs and
other innovations in higher education are growing and changing is a rising
threat to many not-so-prestigious, yet expensive, private institutions.
And it is only a matter of time
before uninformed (or even well-informed) public officials begin to question
the traditional model of higher education. Public institutions in states where
the government has dampened its enthusiasm for higher education spending, like Arizona
State, have in response taken the lead in online offerings even for
undergraduates – offering an online bachelors for about $12,000 a year. Of
course, many public colleges have not yet reacted this way.
Community colleges, which also
receive public funding but serve student populations that may not yet have the
talents and temperaments for online learning, may escape immediate impact of
these changes. But again, the question is “for how long?”
Dams that produce hydropower have been one of the longest established renewable energy sources in the US for a long time. The American industrial revolution started in places, like Massachusetts, with abundant free flowing rivers that were tapped for their energy to power early factories.
Hydropower is still the largest source of renewable energy, accounting for a bit under half of the total.
A few years ago, I was involved with a project that was intended to revive one of those early industrial cities, Holyoke, Massachusetts. The city still had one of the few operating dams left and it supplied local electric power at a significant discount compared to elsewhere in the state. So the idea developed of creating local jobs by building a data center in Holyoke as a remote cloud location for major universities and businesses in the Boston area. (Driving distance between the two is about 90 miles.)
Putting aside whether a data center can be a significant job creator like old-time car plants, it struck me that the state as a whole would benefit by using the water resources there, thus bringing down a relatively high cost for electricity in a digital age. Of course, river resources are present in many other states, particularly east of the Mississippi River and in the northwest.
Thus, at one meeting with representatives of the research facilities of Harvard and MIT, I asked a simple question. When was the last time that engineering or science researchers took a serious look at using better materials or designs to improve the efficiency of the turbines that the water flows through or finding replacements for turbines (like the VIVACE hydrokinetic energy converter shown here)?
Despite or maybe because of the Three Gorges Dam project in China and similar projects, hydropower from dams has diminished in popularity in the face of various environmental concerns. Yet the rivers still flow and contain an enormous amount of energy and giant dams don’t have to be the only way to capture that energy.
With that in mind, I also asked if they had looked at the possibility of designing smaller turbines so that smaller rivers could be tapped without traditional dams. Some variations of this idea are called “run of the river”. (Because of the variability of river flows, this version of hydropower doesn’t produce a consistent level of energy like a coal-burning plant. As with other renewables, it too will need more efficient and cost-effective means of storing electricity – batteries, super-capacitors, etc.)
The quizzical stares I received could most diplomatically be translated as “Why would we do that? Hydraulic engineering is centuries old and has been well established”. However, the sciences of materials and fluid dynamics is dramatically better now than it was even seventy or a hundred years ago and it calls for a much stepped up effort in new hydraulic engineering than has taken place. Periodically, the experts publicly say this as in “Hydraulic engineering in the 21st century: Where to?”
As it turned out, a year or two later in 2011/2012, there was a peak of activity in hydropower experiments in the UK, Germany, Canada, Japan, and India. Here are just some of the more interesting examples:
· Blue Freedom’s “world’s smallest hydropower plant” is intended primarily for small mobile devices as their slogan says “1 hour of Blue Freedom in the river. 10 hours of power for your smartphone”
· In an unusual twist on this topic, Lucid Energy harnessed the power of water flowing through urban pipes.
These were interesting prototypes, experiments and small businesses, but without the kind of academic and financial support seen in the IT industry, these don’t seem to have the necessary scale to make an impact – notwithstanding the release two months ago of a Hydropower vision paper by the US Department of Energy. I’d love to be corrected on this observation.
Perhaps this is another example of a disruptive technology, in the way that its creator, Clayton Christensen, originally defined the term. Disruptive technologies start to be used at the low end of the market where people have few or no other choices – places like India and the backcountry of advanced economies which are poorly served by the electrical grid, if at all. Only later, possibly, will these products be able to go upmarket.
Too much of the discussion about disruptive technologies has been limited to information technology. There can be disruptive technologies in other fields to solve problems that are just as important, perhaps more important, than the ones that app programmers solve – like renewable energy.
Only time will tell if the technology and markets develop sufficiently so that run of the river and similar hydropower becomes one of the successful disruptive technologies.
In many of my presentations, I have pointed out that the Internet is still very much in its early stages. There are tremendous gaps in the availability of high speed, low latency Internet everywhere. It will only be at some point in the future that we could truly expect to have a visual conversation with almost anyone, almost anywhere on the globe.
Beyond expanding connectivity, there are other factors standing in the way of ubiquitous high quality visual communications.
First, the software – the interface that users have to deal with – is quite awkward. There are still too many instances where software, like Skype, just doesn’t work well or freezes or otherwise discourages people from everyday use.
Second, more important, the mindset or culture of users seems not to have changed yet to readily accommodate visual conversations over the Internet everywhere. You surely know someone who just doesn’t want to communicate this way. There used to be many people who thought the telephone shouldn’t replace face-to-face meetings and trying to do so was rude and/or too expensive.
Indeed, I use a rough parallel that we are today with the Internet about where we were with the telephone at the end of the 1920s. That was more than fifty years after the telephone had been invented. Of course, we’re not even fifty years into the life of the Internet.
Although the parallel between phone network and Internet is fairly obvious, it is enlightening or amusing to see history repeat itself. Here is a 1916 advertisement that hails how the telephone is “annihilating both time and space” – what we’ve also heard in more recent years about the Internet.
While there were many articles written at the time about the impact of telephones on society, the economy and life, even in the 1920s (or 30s or 40s or 50s …), telephone usage was not taken for granted. Among other things, long distance calling was not widely considered something most people would do.
Mobile telephony was discussed but not really in existence yet.
There was even a product that anticipated today’s Twitter and similar feeds – or maybe it was just a concept for a product, since vaporware was around even a hundred years ago.
The chart below shows the pattern of historical adoption of telephones in the US from 1876 until 1981.
From the perspective of 1981, never mind 2016, the first fifty years of telephony were the early age.
And since 1981? We’ve seen mobile phones overtake land lines in worldwide usage and become much more than devices for just talking to people.
So imagine what the next 100 years of Internet development will bring.
Last month, I wrote about Head Tech – technology that can be worn on the head and used to control the world about us. Most of those products act as an interface between our brain waves and devices that are managed by computers that are reading our brain waves.
The other related area of Head Tech recognizes the major role of our eyes literally as windows to the world we inhabit.
Google may have officially sidelined its Glass product, but its uses and products like it continue to be developed by a number of companies wanting to demonstrate the potential of the idea in a better way than Google did. There are dozens of examples, but, to start, consider these three.
Carl Zeiss’s Smart Optics subsidiary accomplished the difficult technical task of embedding the display in what looks to everyone like a pair of regular curved eyeglasses. Oh, and they could even be glasses that provide vision correction. Zeiss is continuing to perfect the display while trying to figure out the business challenge of bringing this to market.
Also offering something that looks like regular glasses and is not a fashion no-no is LaForge Optical’s Shima, which has an embedded chip so it can display information from any app on your smartphone. It’s in pre-order now for shipment next year, but you can see what they’re offering in this video. A more popular video provides their take on the history of eye glasses.
While Epson is not striving to devise something fashionable, it is making its augmented reality glasses much lighter. This video shows the new Moverio BT-300 which is scheduled to be released in a few months.
Epson is also tying these glasses to a variety of interesting, mostly non-consumer, applications. Last week at the Interdrone Conference, they announced a partnership with one of the leading drone companies, DJI, to better integrate the visuals coming from the unmanned aerial camera with the glasses.
DAQRI is bringing to market next month an updated version of its Smart Helmet for more dangerous industrial environments, like field engineering. Because it is so much more than glasses, they can add all sorts of features, like thermal imaging. It is a high end, specialized device, and has a price to match.
At a fraction of that price, Metavision has developed and will release “soon” its second generation augmented reality headset, the Meta 2. Its CEO’s TED talk will give you a good a sense of Metavision’s ambitions with this product.
Without a headset, Augmenta has added recognition of gestures to the capabilities of glasses from companies like Epson. For example, you can press on an imaginary dial pad, as this little video demonstrates.
This reminds me a bit of the use of eye tracking from Tobii that I’ve included in presentations for the last couple of years. While Tobii also sells a set of glasses, their emphasis is on tracking where your eyes focus to determine your choices.
One of the nice things about Tobii’s work is that it is not limited to glasses. For example, their EyeX works with laptops as can be seen in this video. This is a natural extension of a gamer’s world.
Which gets us to a good question: even if they’re less geeky looking than Google’s product, why do we need to wear glasses at all? Among other companies and researchers, Sony has an answer for that – smart, technology-embedded contact lenses. But Sony also wants the contact lens to enable you to take photos and videos without any other equipment, as they hope to do with a new patent.
So we have HeadTech and EyeTech (not to mention the much longer established EarTech) and who knows what’s next!
When we drive in our cars, we mostly have a sense of common rules for the road to keep us all safe. Now that we begin to see driverless cars, there are similar issues for the behavior of those cars and even ethical questions. For example, in June, the AAAS’s Science magazine reported on a survey of the public’s attitudes in answer to the story’s title: “When is it OK for our cars to kill us?”
Driverless cars are just one instance of the gradual and continuing improvement in artificial intelligence which has led to many articles about the ethical concerns this all raises. A few days ago, the New York Times had a story on its website about “How Tech Giants Are Devising Real Ethics for Artificial Intelligence”, in which it noted that “A memorandum is being circulated among the five companies with a tentative plan to announce the new organization in the middle of September.”
Of course, this isn’t all new. About 75 years ago, the author Isaac Asimov formally introduced his famous Three Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws
Even before robots came along, ethics was focused on the interactions between people and how they should not harm and conflict with each other – “do unto others …”. As artificial intelligence becomes a factor in our world, many people feel the need to extend this discussion to robots.
These are clearly important issues to us, human beings. Not surprisingly, however, these articles and discussions have a human-centric view of the world.
Much less – indeed very little – consideration has been given to how artificial intelligence agents and robots interact with each other. And we don’t need to wait for self-aware or superhuman robots to consider this.
Even with billions of not so intelligent devices that are part of the Internet of Things, problems have arisen.
This is, after all, an environment in which the major players haven’t yet agreed on basic standardsand communications protocols between devices, never mind how these devices should interact with each other beyond merely communicating.
But they will interact somehow and they will become much more intelligent – embedded AI. Moreover, there will be too many of these devices for simple human oversight, so instead, at best, oversight will come from other machines/things, which in turn will be players in this machine-to-machine world.
The Internet Society in its report on the Internet of Things last year at least began to touch on these concerns.
As the inventors and producers of these things that we are rapidly connecting, we need to consider all the ways that human interactions can go wrong and think about the similar ways machine to machine interactions can go wrong. Then, in addition to basic protocols, we need to determine the “rules of the road” for these devices.
Coming back full circle to the impact on human beings, we will be affected if the increasingly intelligent, machine-to-machine world that we depend on is embroiled in its own conflicts. As the Kenyan proverb goes (more or less):
“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
This is a follow up to last week’s post about people in positions of power whose decisions are flawed because of that powerful position.
every President relishes his image as a decision maker. In the current
election, there’s also much talk about temperament, with both major
candidates claiming how good they are at making judgments and decisions.
there’s little discussion about whether – out of ego, ambition, policy
concerns or whatever – they end up trying to make too many decisions.
Huh? Isn’t that what the job is all about?
That’s what you would
believe if you listened to candidates and President. It’s almost as if
they are like baseball players toting up how many hits they’ve had this
season – why I made 1,000 important decisions last year!
Many academics also focus on Presidential decision-making. Here’s a statement for students:
you imagine being the president of the United States? Think about all
the important decisions that must be made. A president must exercise
wise decision-making skills. Decision making is simply the thought
process of selecting a logical choice from the available options. For
the president, the available options must seem endless!”
John Dean, famously, formerly on the staff of President Nixon, writing just a few years ago about President Obama, stated:
is more important in the American presidency than decision-making. It
is, in fact, the very essence of the job. Presidential decisions can
and do shape our history, for better or worse. Rarely, though, does the
decision-making style of presidential candidates receive much attention
during a campaign.”
Well, on top of the flaws in each individual decision, things only get worse when someone is making too many decisions.
When I originally wrote about this in 2011, one of the most popular articles on the New York Times website was John Tierney’s “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?”. (It’s still one of the top hits when you search the subject.)
pointed out how the quality of decisions declines as too many are made,
in part because the decision makers have not conserved their willpower
for the tough decisions. He cited a now frequently cited study of
“[A]s researchers discovered by analyzing more
than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year, Judges, who would hear
the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the
board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the
probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day.
Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70
percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were
paroled less than 10 percent of the time.”
This pattern is a reflection of decision fatigue,
trying to make too many decisions. It is tied to the general limit on
each person’s ability to sustain will power (and, for that matter,
rationality) over the more natural emotional instincts as the day goes
The American Psychological Association has a website
devoted to will-power – the ability to make decisions that are based on
long-term, rational goals rather than immediate gratification. While
elaborating on the various ways that having stronger will-power leads to
lives that are more successful, they also note the numerous studies
that show it is a limited resource which can be depleted after a series
of difficult decisions.
You can find all sorts of self-help
articles about how to boost your will power, including eating more to
overcome low glucose periods of the day. FastCompany magazine even credited President Obama with reducing his decision fatigue by wearing the same suit every day.
the best efforts of even President Obama, the demands on public
officials – Presidents/governors/mayors, even legislative bodies – to
make all kinds of decisions explains a lot of some of the otherwise
inexplicable decisions we’ve observed.
As we face another Presidential election and think about the
candidates operating in the well-known bubble of the White House, I
thought it worth updating and reposting a piece from four years ago, a month before the last election.
The question I asked: Are our public leaders flawed because they were selected as public leaders?
Just a few weeks ago, an article
in Fortune reminded me of this question and the phenomenon that answers
the question. Its author, Rita Gunther McGrath, noted that:
almost every disaster, you find the leaders based their decision-making
on assumptions… A fundamental flaw in most governmental policy-making
is that those making the deals and decisions think they are operating
with facts. The reality is that they are operating instead with
assumptions, many deeply held, about what causes what to happen. A
policy is really a statement of assumed causality, and the law of
unintended consequences is ever-present.”
The downside of a chief executive’s view of reality – i.e.,
assumptions – is made worse by the typical over-confidence such
The popular title and sub-title of the paper
by Professor Kelly E. See of NYU and three other academic researchers
on organizational behavior, which I originally cited, make the point:
“The Decision-Making Flaw in Powerful People: Overflowing with
confidence, many leaders turn away from good advice.”
Some of their key findings:
paper finds a link between having a sense of power and having a
propensity to give short shrift to a crucial part of the decision-making
process: listening to advice. Power increases confidence which can
lead to an excessive belief in one’s own judgment and ultimately to
flawed decisions. …
"In addition to confirming the previous
experiments’ finding that more powerful people were less likely to take
advice and were more likely to have high confidence in their answers,
this final experiment showed that high-power participants were less
accurate in their answers than low-power participants.”
A related paper by a different group of researchers, led by USC Professor Nathanael J. Fast adds some nuance to this finding:
power leads to overconfident decision-making. The findings, through
both mediation and moderation, also highlight the central role that the
sense of power plays in producing these decision-making tendencies.
sense of power, but not mood, mediated the link between power and
overconfidence. Second, the link between power and overconfidence was
severed when access to power was not salient to the powerful and when
the powerful were made to feel personally incompetent in their domain of
“These findings indicate that only when objective power
leads people to feel subjectively powerful does it produce overconfident
Unfortunately, the last finding doesn’t much
change the fundamental situation for Presidents, who are extraordinarily
powerful, except maybe when they deal with scientific issues that are
not part of their self-image – and, even then, the position lends
greater credence to their views than may be warranted.
Professor See and colleagues provided some advice about overcoming this problem:
one thing, organizations could formally include advice gathering at the
earliest stages of the decision-making process, before powerful
individuals have a chance to form their own opinions. Encouraging
leaders to refrain from commenting on decisions publicly could also keep
them from feeling wedded to a particular point of view.”
or not you might find this research conforms to your own experience, the
last point — gathering in lots of information before public leaders
decide — is a reasonable and feasible suggestion to improve decision
making in many cases. Today, the Internet and the collaborative
discussion tools it offers can make this happen fairly easily.
question is whether the next President will put in place that kind of open platform
for advice or wrongly trust the assumptions that she/he brought into the Oval
The discussion about wearable technology recently has mostly been
about various devices, like watches and bands, that we wear on our
wrists to communicate, measure our health, etc. But from a
technological perspective, if not yet a commercial viewpoint, these are
How about some new hats? Like this one …
These more interesting – and maybe a bit more eerie – wearables are
what I’d call “Head Tech”. That’s technology that we place on our
This has become a fascination of so many engineers that a few months ago the University of Florida held the first brain-controlled drone race. Its larger goal was to popularize the use of brain-computer interfaces.
Not to be outdone, a couple of weeks ago, the Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab at Arizona State University unveiled
a system to use that approach to control not only a single drone, but a
swarm of drones. You can see an explanation in this video – https://vimeo.com/173548439
drones have their recreational and surveillance uses, they’re only one
example. Another piece of Head Tech gear comes from Smartstones, working with Emotiv’s less medical-looking EEG.
It enables people who are unable to speak to use their minds to communicate. As they describe it:
pairing our revolutionary sensory communication app :prose with an EEG
headset powered by Emotiv, we are enabling a thought-to-speech solution
that is affordable, accessible and mobile for the first time ever. Users
can record and command up to 24 unique phrases that can be spoken aloud
in any language.”
The geekiness of some these may remind you of Google Glass. Unlike Google Glass, though, they offer dramatic value
for people who have special but critical needs. For that reason, I
expect some version of these will be developed further and will succeed.
Colleges have long established the roles of those with superior,
perhaps absolute, knowledge (the teachers) and those who have much less
knowledge (the students).
But as a trustee of a community
college, I realize how often the leaders of these institutions – the
boards, the staff and faculty – are, or ought to be, learners as well.
Especially these days, we do not have certain and broad wisdom about
what we can do well.
This was, at least, my frame of mind going
into a recent board “retreat” focusing on the college’s strategy.
Because of my other work, I was asked to provide the lunch keynote
presentation about the changes that are happening and will happen around
us that can affect the future of colleges.
The trends are out
there to be seen, but the implications for traditional institutions are
still open to question. Although I’ve spent much of my career in
technology, unlike various Silicon Valley folks who seem to think they
have the answers too, I really have more questions, which is ultimately
what I wanted my fellow board members to think about. In any case,
there’s no way to get the leaders of those institutions to make changes
by lecturing to them.
Here are the trends I described and the questions they provoked.
Virtual Presence Everywhere
large numbers of people face down looking at their screens, some people
mistake texting, email and social media for real dialogue. But
scientific research indicates otherwise – text communication is
limited. As the saying “seeing is believing” indicates, the non-textual
part of our conversations is critical and that’s not yet part of most
everyday Internet communications.
The digital world is now at a
stage equivalent to where the telephone system was in 1920. This is one
reason I think that online courses are still limited, since many of
them are essentially just broadcast TV (on the web) combined with text
communications. It’s not really a virtual classroom.
visual aspect is growing substantially, with FaceTime, Skype and other
ways beyond even videoconferencing to create a virtual presence
anywhere. We’re even seeing demonstrations of conversations held using
mixed reality technology.
Google and Skype, among others, have
also made good progress in enabling us to communicate in different
languages – adding yet another dimension to being able to be a virtual
This oncoming capability to have visual
dialogues will intensify all the other the trends — although we are
still only in the early stages of its use.
So the first question I asked is:
How can we use these virtual presence technologies?
an example, many of our students are on very tight budgets and often
are working jobs to survive, in addition to going to college. Yet we
ask them to travel miles from where they live, often by slow public
transportation, to get to some main campus where their classes take
But many community colleges have locations aside from their
main campus which could become nodes in a virtual classroom. And
that’s not even including those students who could find other quiet, but
well connected, locations. Then the student could appear virtually in
the classroom, be seen and heard and participate. And the time and
money spent on travel could be devoted to study.
college leaders think of screens and keyboards when we talk of
technology. I showed the many ways that technology and the net are now
everywhere and in many things. Now any surface can be a keyboard, a
mouse or an interactive display. Walls, floors, clothing, armbands,
fingernails, earrings, shoes, your eyes are all means of interacting
with the net.
Moreover, people interacting with technology is only
part of the story in a world where already more devices are connected
to the Internet than people – the “Internet of things”.
The natural question for colleges in response to this trend is to ask:
the Internet is everywhere accessible in many ways, will our college be
everywhere accessible in our region or even the world?
Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Analytics & Big Data
combined these topics because as they all develop they are often
intertwined and as a combined trend they will have an impact on how
obtain and use knowledge.
The best of these efforts are invisible
to their users. For example, speech recognition (like Siri) is an
example of machine intelligence. There are personal translators,
software that makes art, writes stories, acts as a legal assistant, etc.
there is the increased development and use of robots, leading to
concerns about massive future unemployment. While it seems to me there
will still be much to do after the robots have mastered the kind of work
we’ve done in the past, there is no doubt that we should be asking
How can we use these technologies? What is it that
our students need to learn in a future world of, at least, artificially
augmented human intelligence?
Changes In The Way People Will Make A Living
noted the dramatic shift in the last hundred years or more in the
nature of employment from most Americans earning a living by making
products or food to most Americans providing services and intangible
products. Along with this has been a disaggregation of the way that
corporations work, since they too take advantage of technologies that
enable remote collaboration. The latter trend is also associated with
an increase in freelance employment, now said to involve one-third of
the labor force and growing.
Most colleges still think about
preparing their students for traditional jobs in large companies –
especially community colleges which are concerned about the prospects
for their continuing education adult students and even degree students
who will not go on to four year colleges. Yet a 9 to 5 job in the same
big company, from age 25 to 65, is being replaced by earning income from
several sources in a freelance economy.
The questions this raises for colleges are:
our students be able to flourish in this new economy? Are we preparing
them, indeed all of the residents of the areas we serve, for this new
The Need For Lifelong Learning
learning has been a popular catchphrase among public officials and
educators alike, although they have mostly implemented the idea in very
But the people outside of our institutions of
higher education realize that they need keep learning in order to make a
living in an economy based on knowledge. This is not a matter of
taking a refresher course once every five years. It’s a continuous
That’s part of the reason for the popularity of the many
ways that the Internet offers people knowledge – college-like websites
(like Coursera and edX) and the many other websites that teach (from
Khan Academy to Lynda.com to YouTube to thousands of others). The
development of citizen science sites, like Zooniverse and Geazle even offer people the opportunity to both gain and help create knowledge.
much of college, even community college, is focused on the segment of
the population younger than 23, all the people older than that need to
continue to learn. These “older” people are finding the best and most
cost-effective means of lifelong learning because the traditional school
system is not geared to them. Should that be the case?
Do/can community colleges offer something to these adults that meets their continuing needs?
I said at the end of my presentation, I only scratched the surface of
the trends that are coming our way. For example, I didn’t even discuss
the development in bio-engineering.
The overall lesson for college
leaders is clear: in addition to our everyday work of keeping the
institution going, we need to start answering these questions. We need
to develop our strategies to figure out what this all means for
And, as part of a community of learners, community
colleges need to do research, to experiment and to analyze what works
and doesn’t work in a changing world.
A part of my research in graduate school included modeling a small,
but influential, network of individuals – the US Supreme Court. I used
the mathematical models tools available. I even represented the court’s
decisions in a Markov chain and computed characteristics like its
You can be excused if you’ve never heard about any of
this or even about Markov chains. Nobody at the time was much
interested either. But I suppose I should have stayed with it, with
books now being published on the impact of the Internet and network
It emphasizes the importance of networks and
declaring that there is still a wide-open gap in the tools most of us
have for understanding these networks.
In an interview about the book, he set out his goal:
live in an age where almost everything changes because of
connectivity… The seventh sense is the idea that some people have an
instinct for how this works that’s better, sharper than the rest of us.
The book is designed to teach people how to think about connected
systems so that they can have the same kind of edge. The people who see
what’s coming in financial markets or in politics have that edge. It’s
important that the rest of us develop it, too.”
However, the book
is worth reading for what it is, not what he wants it to be. It is
unusual in probing the subtleties — both positive and negative — of our
network age, not the usual breathless or self-promoting material.
of the book describes the various ways that being connected can change
the characteristics and behavior of businesses, organizations,
governments – everything that we’ve inherited from the industrial era.
has been made in various other reviews and discussions of this book
about its the scary descriptions of security issues and other dangers in
networks. That wasn’t news to me and shouldn’t be news to most network
users who have been paying any attention.
Some people have
complained that the book is so wide ranging and repetitive it can be
frustrating to read. Parts go into related space, where he worries
that it’s not just the network, but artificial intelligence that is
surpassing us in ways we don’t understand. But this isn’t a blog of
literary criticism, so I’ll skip over that and go to the substance.
his day job at Kissinger Associates, I thought the most interesting
themes had to do with the interaction between the new global technology
network and the traditional institutions of government, business and
Two themes, in particular, stand out:
notes that the transition from agricultural to industrial eras was
accompanied by major wars, revolutions and destruction, along with
rising wealth. He asks what similar events are likely to happen in the
transition to a networked age. Perhaps ISIS and this year’s disruptions
in the American Presidential elections are only early warning signs of
what’s to come.
He ends the book recalling Plato on the
need for wisdom in rulers, after he has presented a picture of two
inadequate sets of rulers – the engineers who control the network, but
do not understand governance and human interactions and the traditional
government leaders who don’t understand then network.
we all seem to be connected, Ramo writes that the Internet is really
divided into various gated communities. He states that “gatedness is
the corollary to connectedness” and this gatedness is a potential
At one point, he worries that you will have to be among
the rulers — presumably those with the seventh sense or at least those
controlling the gates — or the ruled. He says the network gives people
more power against the gatekeepers than in traditional institutions, but
also notes that the average person may nevertheless need to be inside
the gate to lead a satisfactory life and make a living – so there’s
really no choice after all.
Aside from the problem he mentions, why is this important?
no matter their ideology and internal practices, in the past few
centuries, all governments are fundamentally in the business of
controlling a specific bordered territory — maintaining the physical
gates. He posits that the Internet’s gatekeepers — Facebook, or Apple
iOS, etc. —are taking over that role in the cyberworld. He says that
they are the powerful ones to watch out for in future wars between
networks and the state and between networks and other networks.
others have considered the potential of a conflict between governments
and the Internet. Last summer, for example, the Wilson Quarterly had an
article responding to this concern, “The Nation-State: Not Dead Yet”.
biggest weakness in the book and others of this kind is that the lack
of nuance in the discussion of networks. The fact that there can be a
distribution of power and gates in networks doesn’t end the story.
Partly the problem with these books is that the question of what nodes
(and entry points) of a network are most influential isn’t one that
can’t be answered merely in words.
Pictures help convey a bit more, and – going back to my graduate school research – mathematics helps even more.
as you read Ramo’s book and his concerns, you get the sense that his
view of the network is similar to this picture of Indiana University’s
Big Red network:
But perhaps the world outside of such tightly
controlled campuses is more like the collaborative network of Oak Ridge
Or something different.
And although a node’s
place in a network can show its potential influence, these graphs merely
show connections, not actual influence or power. Unfortunately, the
publicly available analysis of influence over the billions of nodes and
endpoints of the Internet is still primitive. Moreover, to his point,
it is also changing.
This book is a bit like Jefferson’s view of
the Louisiana Purchase before the Lewis and Clark expedition. Jefferson
had a sense it was worth buying, but needed to send out scouts to find
out the details. While they didn’t learn everything there was to learn
about the territory, much of what they did learn was changed over time
That too will characterize our understanding of the network we explore each day.
Some of my blog posts seem to be ahead of news reported elsewhere,
which is ok with me, but also means that it might be helpful to list
some interesting articles that continue past stories. Here are some
My two-part series in March on the Coding Craze
questioned the long term value of the plan by many public officials to
teach computer coding. While the general news media continue to talk and
write about coding as an elixir for your career, WIRED Magazine
recently ran a cover story titled “The End of Code”. See their web
piece at http://www.wired.com/2016/05/the-end-of-code/
written several posts on one of my special interests – the related
subjects of mixed reality, virtual reality, blended physical and digital
spaces. I noted sports as a natural for this, including highlighting the Trilite project last year. So it was great to read
the announcement in the last few days that NBC and Samsung are
collaborating to offer some of the Rio Olympics on Samsung VR gear.
all inundated with talk about how “things are changing faster than ever
before” in our 21st century world. Taking an unconventional view, in
2011, I asked “Telegraph vs. Internet: Which Had Greater Impact?”
My argument was that the first half of the 19th century had much more
dramatic changes, especially in speeding up communications. In what I
think is the first attempt to question the fastest-ever-changes meme,
the New York Times Magazine also recently elaborated on this theme in an
Upshot article titled “What Was the Greatest Era for Innovation? A Brief Guided Tour”.
In “Art and the Imitation Game”,
March 2015, I wrote about how artificial intelligence is stepping into
creative activities, like writing and painting. While there have been
many articles on this subject since, one of the most intriguing was from
the newspaper in the city with more attorneys per capita than anywhere
else, as the Washington Post invited us to “Meet ‘Ross,’ the newly hired legal robot”.
I wrote about the White House Rural Telehealth meeting in April this year. The New York Times later had a report on the rollout of telehealth to the tens of millions of customers of Anthem, under the American Well label.
back several years and in both that post and one on “The
Decentralization Of Health Care” about a year and a half ago, I’ve
touched on the difficulties posed by the fee for service health care
system in the US and instead wondered if we would be better off by
paying health systems a yearly fee to keep us healthy – thus aligning
our personal interests with those of the system. So it has been
interesting to see in April that there was movement on this by the
Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMMS), which is the Federal
government’s health insurance agency. Here are just some examples:
At the annual summit of the Intelligent Community Forum two weeks
ago, there was a keynote panel consisting of the mayors of three of the
most intelligent cities in the world:
Michael Coleman, Mayor of the City of Columbus, Ohio from 2000 through 2015
Mayor Rob Van Gijzel, Eindhoven, Netherlands, from 2008-today
Paul Pisasale, Mayor, City of Ipswich, Queensland, Australia, from 2004-today
Both Eindhoven and Columbus have been selected as the most intelligent community in the world and Ipswich has been in the Top 7. Columbus also was just selected by the US Government as one of the winners of its Smart City challenge.
topic was intriguing (at least to those of us who care about economic
growth): “International Economic & Business Development — Secrets of
international development at the city and region level”.
did have interesting things to say about that topic. Mayor Coleman
pointed out that 3,000 jobs are created for every billion dollars of
global trade that Columbus has. He reminded the audience that making
global connections for the benefit of the local economy is not a
one-time thing as it takes years to build relationships that will
flourish into deep global economic growth.
That reminder of the
long term nature of creating economic growth was a signal of the real
secrets they discussed — how to survive a long time in elected office
and create a flourishing city.
Part of what distinguishes these
mayors from others is not just their success at being elected because
the voters thought they were doing a good job. An important part of
their success is their willingness to focus on the long-term, the
By contrast, those mayors and other local officials who
are so worried about re-election instead focus just on short term hits
and, despite that, often end up being defeated.
This requires a
certain personal and professional discipline not to become too easily
distracted by daily events. For example, Mayor Coleman said he divided
his time into thirds –
Handling the crisis of the day (yes, he did have to deal with that, just not all the time)
Keeping the city operations going smoothly
Developing and implementing a vision for the future
another statement of the importance of a future orientation, Mayor
Pisasale declared that “economic development is about jobs for your
kids” — a driving motivation that’s quite different from the standard
economic development projects that are mostly sites for ribbon cuttings
and a photo in the newspaper.
He was serious about this statement
even in his political strategy. His target groups for the future of the
city are not the usual civic leaders. Rather he reaches out to
students (and taxi drivers) to be champions for his vision of the
Mayor Van Gijzel pointed out that an orientation to the
future means that you also have to be willing to accept some failures –
something else that you don’t hear often from more risk-averse, but less
successful politicians. (By the way, there’s a lot more detail about
this in the book, “The City That Creates The Future: Rob van Gijzel’s
This kind of thinking recalls the 1932 declaration by the most
politically successful and re-elected US President, Franklin Roosevelt:
country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands
bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method
and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above
all, try something.”
That brings up another important point
in this time of focus on cities. Innovation and future-orientation is
not just about mayors.
Presidents aside, another example of long term
vision comes from
Buddy Villines, who was chief executive of Pulaski County (Little Rock, Arkansas) for twenty-two years until the end of 2014.
a time when many public officials are disdained by a majority of their
constituents, these long-time mayors – successful both as politicians
and for the people of their cities – should be a model for their more
past years, this time I didn’t only focus on the potential that the
Internet provides for the countryside, but also showed the ways that
some – but not all – of those communities are already being
reinvigorated. This post will provide a summary of my presentation
during the first half of the workshop.
In addition to the
usual background about ICF, I let people know of the establishment of a
new ICF Institute that is specifically devoted to the study of rural
communities. It’s based at Mississippi State University and is led by
Professor Roberto Gallardo.
I quickly outlined the reasons why
changes in technology and the economy enable small towns and rural areas
to flourish again in this century:
Now and in the future, size and clusters count less than connections
Broadband enables economic growth in the way that proximity enabled urban economic growth in the industrial era
ever increasing percentage of people can make a living by providing
intangible products and services that can be delivered from anywhere to
A life-long 9 to 5 job in a big company is being pushed aside by the freelance economy
Visual communication will intensify the trends — although we are still only in the early stages of its use
I noted that only some small towns and rural areas have taken advantage
of these factors. As a result, growth is very uneven in the
countryside as reported by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
I reviewed the kinds of community building services that the leaders,
in contrast to the laggards, are providing on top of their broadband and
That was all prelude to the main topics of the day:
development of a new urban exodus by digital millennials from high-tech
cities into those parts of the countryside that provide both a better
quality of life as well as Internet connectivity
the need for
residents of the countryside to participate in the global economy and
not limit their horizons to their local areas or even just their region
The new urban exodus to the countryside is a phenomenon that is not only in
the US, but has also occurred in France and the UK. Nor is it like the migration to exurban homes of more than a decade ago. As a Pew study has reported:
to call these rural hot spots “exurban,” Garreau said, is missing the
point. As he sees it, today’s urban exiles aren’t looking for a lengthy
commute from the far suburbs to a downtown office. They’re seasoned
professionals with big incomes who’ve grown tired of the urban rat race,
he said. They’re looking to completely eradicate the notion of
commuting to work and toiling from 9 to 5. Rich greenery and wide-open
vistas are a must.
For a better understanding of this phenomenon, I showed a few minutes from Alissa Hessler’s very compelling video explaining what her Urban Exodus website and life is like.
I reviewed the evidence showing the greater growth path for those
participating in the global economy, even in rural areas. However,
rural residents are at a competitive disadvantage compared to their city
cousins if they try to do this in isolation.
For that reason, I
emphasized the need for rural residents to achieve scale and influence
by working together in a kind of virtual metropolis or global virtual
Chamber of Commerce where they can meet and, more important, find
business partners, services and even customers. Partly, this can work
is because it is also built on the shared experience and perspective
that comes from living in the countryside.
If you or the residents
of your community are interested in joining in this virtual metropolis,
please contact me – njacknis at intelligent community dot org.
Taking its work on the future of public libraries
to the next stage, the Aspen Institute has selected Winter Park,
Florida as one of five locations with which it will work closely to
develop a useful set of models for all kinds of public libraries.
part of that effort, Aspen and the library and City of Winter Park held
a day-long community dialogue and visioning meeting last Thursday. (I
was asked to participate because I previously worked with Winter Park and I’m one of the small group of advisors to the Aspen Institute.)
won’t use this space to repeat what I’ve said about libraries already,
but instead this is about the Aspen process of engaging citizens to
figure out the future of their communities. What I’ll report below may
seem simple or even obvious, but it’s clear that the Aspen Institute has
been conducting these dialogues for a long time and has a sense of what
Many of us, including myself, have seen enough such sessions accomplish little. We appreciate it when this works well.
also helps that Winter Park is a city with engaged residents. For a
city of about 26,000 people, the turnout of several dozen people for an
introductory session on Wednesday night was extraordinary, especially
considering that it was not well publicized.
So too was the
involvement all day Thursday of the Mayor, the City Manager, and another
member of the City Commission, in addition to the President of Full
Sail University, a leaders of Rollins College and Valencia Community
College. Of course, various other local leaders who have been much
involved with the library joined them.
Thursday’s roundtable began
with a discussion of two topics: Library Alignment With Community
Goals and The Library As A Platform For Community Development. This
framing is all important, since the focus is on the community, not about
the library as a solitary building.
Sometimes the discussion was
all over the field. Like the blind men and the elephant, this is
necessary for everyone to hear not so much what each thinks of the
overall thing (the library or even the community) but how it looks from
their particular perspective. Unlike the story of the blind men, this
can work as long people then put together their perspectives to achieve
an understanding of the whole picture.
The pressure from a number
of local futurists also had an impact on the nature of the dialogue –
more on how do we keep up with a changing world, instead of the
too-frequent complaint I’ve heard elsewhere that “we don’t understand
these changes”. I was pleased to hear local residents even talking
about the use of artificial intelligence in libraries, something that
I’ve blogged about but not heard even from many professionals. This is a
good indication that, at least in this community, the library won’t be
overtaken by onrushing technological changes, including one that was made public as we were meeting.
Rather than just continue a general discussion, Aspen’s Amy Garmer then presented 15 possible action steps.
She asked each person to vote on those steps (singly or combined) they
thought most important so that the group could generate a list of three
actions they would start to implement.
This voting and the
discussion around it also had the effect getting people’s commitment to
their choices and thus acceptance of responsibility for follow-up
tasks. And, indeed, as the day ended, several people stepped up to take
on the tasks.
So, in a day and an evening, there was a sequence
of futuristic visioning, discussion of community priorities and
commitments to substantive action steps.
This is sort of a report on that call, intertwined with my
observations from this call about why it’s hard to get things done in
the Federal government.
First, there was some encouraging news, including these items:
White House is starting to fund research on how telehealth improves
medical outcomes, which will be important for future changes.
of changes in Federal law and market conditions, there has been such a
rapid growth of integrated health care systems that, on their own, some
are now reaching out to serve rural areas.
In various ways,
there was agreement that telehealth is now expanding into remote patient
monitoring. This is especially good news for rural residents who may
have to travel miles even to get to a local clinic which is in turn
connected to a major medical center.
This last item also reminded me of Longfellow’s Little Girl:
was a little girl, and she had a little curl right in the middle of her
forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good, and when she
was bad she was horrid”
At the same time the Veterans Health
Administration has had its problems with waiting lists at some
facilities, it is has taken the lead in innovations, like tele-health, to bring health care to veterans at work or at home in small towns, rural areas and other places where it is difficult for the veterans to get to major facilities.
note that I’ve spent much more time with local and state government,
where with good leadership, things can get done fairly quickly, even
when major innovations are involved. Many of these governments are at
least as efficient, if not more efficient, than most large
corporations. As we’ve heard and seen many times in this election year,
the Federal government is another story.
Here then are some relevant, if not new, observations based on the rural tele-health work:
It’s very hard to get things done even if you’re sitting in the White House.
some extent, this is built into the constitution, the system of
government, which divides power and ensures that Federal agencies almost
suffer from a kind of matrix management with multiple parties having a
say about what happens.
And when the Federal government gets
around to doing something it needs to be very careful and thoughtful
about the rules because its impact is so outsized – part of its slowness
is to ensure it doesn’t behave like a bull in a china shop.
are millions of Federal employees to contend with, each of whom has
his/her own sense of what their public responsibility calls for. This
can lead to a silo effect where people in different departments don’t
work with each other or even know each other are working on the same
issue. As an example, psychiatrists who are encouraged by one part of
the Federal government to provide face-to-face services through
videoconferencing worry about running afoul of the concerns of the Drug Enforcement Administration about electronic prescriptions of controlled substances.
Having said all this, the White House staff should still be applauded
for continuing to push these innovative tele-healthcare services,
despite the built-in obstacles and the short time they have left.
In our post-industrial, Internet world, an ever increasing percentage
of the population has an ever increasing need for knowledge to make a
living. This is why people have used the Internet’s search engines so
much, despite being frequently frustrated by the volume and irrelevance
of search results. They may also be suspicious of the bias and
commercialism built into the results. Most of all, people intuitively
grasp that search results are not the same thing as the knowledge they
Thus, if I had to point to a single service that
would dramatically raise the economic importance of libraries in this
century, it would be satisfying this need in a substantive and objective
Yet, if you go to most dictionaries, you’ll find a
definition of a library like this one from the Oxford Dictionary:
building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and
sometimes films and recorded music for people to read, borrow, or refer
While few people would say that libraries
shouldn’t provide books, as long as people want them, most librarians
would point to the many services they have provided beyond collecting
Nevertheless, the traditional definition
continues to limit the way too many librarians think. Even among those
who object to the narrow definition in the dictionary, these two
traditional assumptions about libraries are usually unquestioned:
Library services are mostly delivered in a library building.
Library services are mostly delivered by human beings.
argument here is simple: If libraries are to meet the public needs of a
21st century knowledge economy, librarians must lift these self-imposed
constraints. It is time to free the library and library services!
isn’t as radical as it sounds. If we look deeper, more conceptually,
at what has gone on in libraries, libraries services are about the
community’s reserve of knowledge and sharing of information — and
helping members of the community find what they need quickly, accurately
and without bias. I’m proposing nothing different, except expanding
the ways that libraries do this job.
The first of these two
assumptions is the simplest one to abandon. Although the library
building remains the focus for many in the profession, in various ways,
virtual services are available through the web, chat, email or even Skype. (I’ve written
before about the ways that library reference services could become
available anywhere and be much improved through a national
The second assumption – the necessity for a human librarian at almost all points of service — will be a tougher one to discard.
though, one of the most important of the emerging, disruptive
technologies – artificial intelligence and machine learning – which can
supplement and enhance the ability of librarians to deliver information
services well and at a scale appropriate for the large demand.
My hope is that, working with software and artificial intelligence experts, librarians
will start creating machine learning and artificial intelligence
services that will make in-depth, unbiased knowledge guidance and
information reference universally available.
successfully as a national project will enable the library as an
institution, if not a building, to reclaim its role as information
central for people of all ages.
the last several years, there have been a few experiments in using
artificial intelligence to supplement reference services provided by
human librarians. In the UK, the University of Wolverhampton offers its
“Learning & Information Services Chatbot”.
A few weeks ago, the Knight News Challenge selected the Charlotte Mecklenberg Public Library’s DALE project with IBM Watson and described it as “the first AI enabled search portal within a public library setting.”
In a note that is very much in accord with my argument, they wrote:
are the unsung heroes of the Information Age. In a world where
everyone Googles for the right answer, many are unaware of the wealth of
information that libraries have within their physical and digital
collections.… DALE would be able to analyze the structured and
unstructured data hidden within the public library’s vast collections,
helping both staff and customers locate the information needed within
one search setting.”
Despite the needs of library patrons, so far these examples are still rare for a couple of reasons.
people argue that libraries shouldn’t and maybe can’t compete with the
big corporations, like Apple and Google, in helping people find the
knowledge they need. As I’ve already noted above, many users experience
these commercial services as a poor substitute for what they want.
any case, abdicating its own responsibility is a disservice to library
patrons and the public who have looked to libraries for objective,
non-commercial information services for a very long time.
also a fear that wider use of artificial intelligence to help provide
library services might put human librarians out of work. While that is
not a concern that librarians generally discuss publicly, Steven Bell,
Associate University Librarian of Temple University, wrote last month in
Library Journal about this very subject – the potential for artificial
intelligence to diminish the need for librarians. He called it the “Promise and Peril of AI for Academic Librarians”, although the article seemed to focus more on the peril.
is the fear of every worker faced with the onslaught of technology and
the resulting prospect of delivering more output in fewer hours. With
artificial intelligence and related robotics, workers in industries
where demand is not accelerating – like cars – may very well have
something to worry about.
But the reality for librarians is
different. The demand for information services is accelerating so that
even in the face of greater productivity per person, employment
prospects shouldn’t diminish.
Indeed, if these library services
become real and gain traction, increasing demand for them and for the
librarians that make them possible will also increase because the
knowledge creates a demand for new knowledge. To use an ungainly and
somewhat distasteful analogy, it is like an arms race.
is neither about corporate competition nor unemployment. Rather my fear
is that the library profession will not easily abandon its self-imposed
limitations and will not expand its presence and champion new
technology for its services. If those limitations remain, the public –
having been forced to go elsewhere to meet their needs – will in the end
devalue and reduce their support for libraries.
Among the three kinds of often successful, but non-conformist, brand strategies that Professor Moon describes is the “breakaway brand”.
She starts with the story of Sony’s AIBO, an expensive, but not very useful and frequently non-functioning robot. In light of its very real limitations, the company positioned it not as a robot, but instead as a household pet. Branded as a pet, its quirky behavior and unresponsiveness to its owner’s commands at times (due to system errors) was acceptable, even expected. And many AIBO owners developed real understanding and affection for their “pet”.
In elaborating on the strategy, she wrote:
The new frame of reference — PET as opposed to ROBOT — has become an almost magical transformative device, transforming an instrumental product into a playful one, transforming a series of product flaws (“the voice recognition doesn’t work, and the thing rarely obeys commands”) into actual product benefits (“it’s a pet with a mind of its own”).
This, in a nutshell, is what breakaway brands are: They’re transformative devices. By presenting us with an alternative frame of reference, they encourage us to let go of the consumption posture we’re inclined to bring to a product and embrace entirely new terms of engagement instead. …
You could even say that breakaway brands revel in our stereotypes, since they make their living turning them upside down. We dream of someday owning a robot that will wait on us hand and foot, so what do these brands do? They give us a robot that we have to wait on hand and foot. …
These brands are the antithesis of well-behaved, and their mutiny is directed squarely at the category assumptions we bring to the table. And sometimes the transgression is more than a touch provocative; it’s a bit twisted as well. …
What a breakaway positioning strategy offers is the opportunity to achieve a kind of differentiation that is sustainable over the long term. … it has no competitors; it remains sui generis.
Then I put the book down to watch the news.
While I don’t normally write about politics and I’m not going to provide opinions about the candidates for US President here, this description — in a book published six years ago — struck me as being so clearly relevant to the 2016 rise of Donald Trump that I think it’s worth sharing.
Donald Trump hasn’t been educated as lawyer or political scientist or policy analyst and has not held public office. Instead, he is a businessman, with an education from one of the best business schools in the country and obvious skills at promotion. I have no idea if he has ever read this particular business book, but even if he hasn’t, he’s been pursuing exactly this strategy in politics with all of the extreme reactions — both positive and negative — that come to businesses pursuing breakaway brand strategies.
This helps me to understand the Trump phenomenon better. And the breakaway rethinking of the brand of President may also explain why Trump has maintained his support among voters regardless of whether they approve or disapprove of any of his positions and statements.
By the way, my guess is that this tweet indicates that Professor Moon herself is not at all happy about Trump.
And lest we think this is a one-time phenomenon, Professor Moon notes that:
In addition, these brands leave an indelible mark on their categories even after copycats emerge. In fact, this is what I tell my students: When you witness the birth of a breakaway brand, you are often witnessing the birth of an entirely new subcategory, one that is likely to alter the complexion of that industry well beyond the next business cycle. …
This, then, is what I mean when I say that breakaway brands succeed in transforming their industries. They leave their imprint by expanding product definitions, by stretching category boundaries, and by forcing competitors to play catch-up for years to come.
Of course, it remains to be seen how large a share of the “market” (the electorate) is attracted to this particular breakaway strategy — or if some other candidate in the future will find a new way of breaking away from what may have been the once-new, but then became conventional, behavior.
In 2009, I wrote a blog titled: “When Will Citizens Be Able To Track Requests To The Government?”
It’s time to see if much progress has been made, but first some background …
people that public officials call citizens or voters or residents are
not single-minded civic machines. Most of the time, they are consumers
and workers outside of the public sector. And so what happens outside
of the public sector affects their expectations of what should happen in
the public sector.
One of the more frequent parts of a
consumer’s life these days is being able to track things. Here are just
a few of the many diverse examples, almost all of which have been
around for at least a few years: track your Domino’s pizza
order from the oven to your front door; track shipments, at all stages,
through FedEx or UPS or even USPS; track the path of a car that you
ordered via Uber; track an airline flight so you know when to leave for the airport to pick up a relative or friend.
not enable citizens to track their government transactions in
mid-stream? While suggestions of this kind are often proposed to
increase transparency of government, the tracking actually serves a much
simpler goal – to reduce frustration on the part of the citizen.
people can see where their request or application is, they will have a
lower sense of frustration and a greater sense of control. If the
citizens could also get an estimate of how long it usually takes to go
through each step of an approval process, all the better.
In the public sector, this kind of tracking was very rare in 2009. The standout was the UK, for example enabling residents to driving license applications.
2009, we’ve seen some more ways to track requests and applications.
This has been especially true of requests under various freedom of
information laws, such as the US Justice Department’s. However, the
average citizen is not submitting FOIL requests – I suspect that most
come from media employees.
You can track your request for US government grants
– again something that the average citizen isn’t focused on. The US
Internal Revenue Service IRS2go app lets you track the status of your
refund, which is likely to be of interest to a much larger number of
While it is difficult for me to judge from this distance
how well it actually works, certainly one of the broadest and most
ambitious efforts to let residents track their requests is in India, not the US or Europe even.
Alas, in New York City, the government’s website tells you call 311 to track applications for Food Stamps.
In South Carolina, a “Multi-Agency Partnership Portal”
provides a reasonably good way of applying for various health and
support programs. Although the website refers to seeing the status of
the application, it’s not clear from the documentation how you’d do that.
Colorado’s version of the same kind of website, called PEAK, makes it very easy to track status.
Although Indiana also does this, its website seems much more complicated than Colorado’s.
the City of San Francisco, which aims to be a technology leader, has
had its difficulties in enabling people to do the simple tracking of,
for example, building permits. Its website refers back to a partial implementation two years ago, but no recent update.
Even worse, one of the examples from 2009 was from the District of Columbia, where you could the track the status of building permit applications. If you try that now, you’ll get this backtracking message:
has removed its permit status check page also known as Online Building
Permit Application Tracking (OBPAT) application from its website.
recognizes that some constituents are disappointed about this
decision. In short, DCRA found that-the information was too often
unreliable and resulted in misinformation to constituents. This is
totally unacceptable, DCRA is hopeful that the site will eventually be
restored, but the data issues must be resolved before it is. DCRA is
committed to transparency, but transparency is helpful when accurate
information is available. It is DCRA’s goal to have truthful, accurate
communication from staff, and the public access sites need to reflect
that as well.”
Clearly, there are still many situations where people want to track their interaction with the government and cannot.
course, the ultimate goal, in so far as possible, is to complete those
transactions instantaneously online, like the fishing license app that Michigan makes available. Then the tracking problem disappears, but that’s a subject for a future blog post.)
So the answer to the question?
the last seven years, there has only been a little progress here and
there in some areas of government, but not the massive change that
technology makes possible.
Consider an analogy. While
every government, for instance, expects that it needs a formal budget
document, most apparently don’t yet have an expectation that they need
to make it easy for people to find out the status of their requests for
common services. In this Internet age that is no longer something new. It’s time to get moving on it.