Cybernetic jurisdictions and the Things of Internets

TV_EYE Walled gardens are jurisdictions that exercise control over behaviors. Facebook determines what constitutes acceptable speech. Apple determines what applications are fit for public consumption. Google determines who has access to your data exhaust. When we each accept their TOS, we effectively opt-in to their legal system, yielding to further arbitrage whenever their lawyers or marketing teams or data scientists change the writ again. Most don’t even read the fine print. And yet, as long as we’re within the garden, we’re bound by the laws.

The Internet of Things is much more than just a buzzword and it’s instructive to consider what it means for these digital jurisdictions. The walled gardens are pushing into physicality, where they’ll likely further encircle us with their control structures [and I'm trying to use the term "control" in the cybernetic sense but it's hard not to see the political angle as well]. Platform owners will be able to govern not just in digital gardens but across the physical world. Wearables, embedded systems, and the emerging realm of machine perception/learning empower these gardens to grow across the landscape – watching, mediating, and correcting.

It’s not to say we’re headed for ruin (I’m too much of an optimist) but it raises important considerations when the devices we carry are registering us on innumerable invisible networks through which we pass, and those networks are analyzing us and provisioning our relationships to the digital and physical world and the many stakeholders focused on our behaviors. It’s not hard to imagine how geofencing becomes actual fencing, for example, revoking access based on whatever data transactions are happening between us and the many voices in the cloud. Soon enough, context and prediction will rise as the next wave of cybernetics, granting greater agency to the algorithms deputized on our behalf.

We typically want our applications to be smarter and to better assist us but these things take on very different characteristics when they begin to interpenetrate with the physical, beyond our direct reach. When they’re matched to machine vision and learning systems and robotics and actuators, and when they invite platform owners and stakeholders to encode laws and Terms of Service into the built environment, when they’re always-on in the background of our lives, watching – these are no longer applications that we invoke. They’re the fabric in which we live.

Of course, it will still be a battle of jurisdictions, of subsets and super-sets, of laws and contracts. And there will probably be algorithms whose sole task is to arbitrate between them all. But it’s an odd thought to imagine how the platform wars might engage with us and our market share when their gardens are growing in our cities.

The Business of Time

“There will be a different kind of bigness to deal with, a complexity that is dispersed geographically, temporally, and organizationally. This calls for an organizational model of loose affiliation rather than tight control, with the hierarchy determined not so much by rank as by time and size: the higher levels are those that are concerned with longer periods of time over greater parts of the organization.” – Kevin Kelly

What would it look like to design organizations more explicitly around time frames rather than traditional command hierarchies? In practice, this occurs but it’s often a consequence of necessity rather than a coordinated way of structuring operations. Milestones, release dates, quarterly earnings, etc drive operations across many scales of the organization and yet the functional groups that work to meet these milestones are often not deliberately arranged to function optimally at these time frames. Program management is often left trying to enforce the schedule across multiple stakeholders moving at different rates. The nuance is that by making time the explicit top-level organizer, all functional groups are then evaluated and organized around their respective clock rate rather than how they fit in the reporting structure. An added benefit is that mid- to long-term planning becomes more explicit at the executive tier when the c-suite is required to continuously think in terms of strategy, longevity, and vision.

When functional groups are distributed and loosely-coupled, and when more autonomy is pushed out across the organization, the C-suite has more space to think in broader time frames. It’s like a set of differential gears where the smallest are spinning fastest but are coupled all the way up to the largest and slowest.

A rough sketch of how to explicitly structure the business of time:
1. The role of leadership works through the longest horizon, aligning strategy with vision from 6 months to ten years.
2. Upper management orients across release cycles over months.
3. Execution layers work in rapid iteration cycles on the order of weeks.
4. Customer support, branding, and marketing have the shortest timeframe, embedded in hourly cycles.

Notably, mechanisms for learning and evaluation must be institutionalized across all these scales. It’s critical that the organization be engaged in continuous feedback from the environment. Digital infrastructures that readily support feedback systems, fluid communication, knowledge repositories, and identity platforms are critical to the modern organization. Furthermore, with hierarchy made less explicit, information is less likely to be distorted as it moves up the chain of command. The result is an organization with nimble execution, continuous learning and adaptation built into the structure, and a leadership focus oriented towards the larger cycles of time rather than being distracted by the churn of turbulence in the present.

Coherency in Contradiction

Coherency in Contradiction is the main research project I’ve been working on as a Research Fellow at the Deloitte Center for the Edge as part of the 2013 Shift Index. It’s just been published at Deloitte University Press. The paper looks at a selection of seeming contradictions faced by people and organizations, and then re-frames them as mutual opportunities rather than mutually exclusive choices. The deeper agenda I have with this work is to push leaders to look past the binary, black & white world we are programmed to create and move to a more holistic, relativistic perspective. The second agenda is to educate people about complex adaptive systems in a way that’s meaningful to the average executive. These two agendas come together in one of the closing statements: “In a messy, complex world, it’s not just possible to walk within paradoxes—it’s necessary.”

This effort is not about yielding to the chaos and trusting that everything will work out. But in order to better anticipate and shape their direction, we should become more adept at understanding the rapidly changing ecosystems that increasingly drive markets. More systematic use of complexity modeling tools and scenario planning will help reveal patterns and identify where new opportunities are likely to emerge. Instead of trying to suppress randomness, we should cultivate environments that increase the potential for serendipity so that we can build new ecosystems and discover new ideas and practices. In certain cases, we may even be able to shape how broad arenas evolve, materially altering the probability of certain outcomes, rather than simply waiting to react to events as they occur. Shaping, however, is very different from controlling and requires a deep understanding of the forces that drive the evolution of complex systems.

Ultimately, a leading response to growing complexity might be to abandon certain management techniques of the past. Through embracing the flow within complexity, it is possible to develop simple rules for greater performance, innovation, and—importantly—adaption and alignment with the defining structures of nature.

What I’ve Been Up To

Just an update on my recent work… My writings here have been sparse at best lately but it’s mainly because I’m doing so much research and consulting elsewhere. Some of it is now available online so here’s the overview:

My 6-month fellowship at the Deloitte Center for the Edge has been fantastic. It’s been a great opportunity to hone my research, dive into some meaty topics, and work to refine my communication skills so that I can make some pretty complex stuff meaningful to a broader audience. It’s also been a tremendous opportunity to work directly with John Hagel and John Seely Brown – two verifiable wizards, each in their own right.

The fellowship is wrapping up at the end of December so I’m starting to whip up my next gig. Give me a shout if you’ve got any interesting collaborations…
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Future Thinking – Co.Exist

I have a new article up on FastCo.Exist provocatively titled “Future thinking isn’t about the future, it’s about the present”. Of course, it’s about both but editors do like to grab attention with extreme-sounding headlines.

An excerpt:

For millennia, we’ve grappled with “things” pretty well but systems are really different. Systems are complex interactions of interdependent parts that give rise to emergent and often-unexpected (“non-deterministic”) behaviors. If you’ve ever kept an aquarium, you have a sense for the delicate equilibrium necessary to a healthy aquatic system. Add a new fish or trim too much of the macroalgae and you can suddenly veer into an ecosystem crash. Small changes can have large results, so you have to be very deliberate in how you manage the tank.

Cities of the Future, Built By Drones, Bacteria, & 3D Printers

I have a new article up on Fast Company about programatic matter, synthetic biology, robotic swarming, and the future possibilities of architecture.

As complex ecosystems, cities are confronting tremendous pressures to seek optimum efficiency with minimal impact in a resource-constrained world. While architecture, urban planning, and sustainability attempt to address the massive resource requirements and outflow of cities, there are signs that a deeper current of biology is working its way into the urban framework.

More…

Running With Machine Herds

Continuing its annual tradition of walking the lines between genuine social goodyness and highfalutin’ techno utopianism, the TED2013 conference kicked off this week in Los Angeles. Gathering together some of the brighter minds and more well-heeled benefactors, attendees come to tease apart the phase space of possibility and to take a closer look at how we consciously examine and intentionally evolve our world. Among the many threads and themes, one in particular tugs deeply at both aspirational humanism and existential terror.

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Quick Riffs on Autonomous Vehicles

This tweet got me riffing on potential outcomes & exploits available when autonomous vehicles become common:

I also “like” (or “find interesting”, in the Chinese proverbial sense) the idea of rogue agents seizing control over vehicular fleets to direct and coordinate their movements towards some sort of goal, e.g. assembling to bust a road barricade or defend a bank heist. Interesting times, indeed…

[Apologies/nods to Scott Smith.]

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Virtual Hitmen Hired To Curb Son’s Gaming Addiction

From China, this article tickles my sic-fi bone in just the right way. It’s one of those news bits that seems enfolded out of the future just to remind us how odd and accelerated we are in the present. From Kotaku:

Unhappy with his son not finding a job, Mr. Feng decided to hire players in his son’s favorite online games to hunt down Xiao Feng… Feng’s idea was that his son would get bored of playing games if he was killed every time he logged on, and that he would start putting more effort into getting a job.

The article itself is a bit bland but the concept is ultracool and ripe for embellishment. Son hires mercenary clan to defend himself against father’s hit men. Or, son hires hackers to destroy dad’s credit so dad turns to Lawnmower Men to wipe son’s digital identity. How about a new niche of virtual assassin’s paid to neutralize annoying troll’s, spammers, or distant relatives with bothersome religious/political agenda’s? Social media assassins that target Twitter & Facebook accounts for permanent deletion… How safe is the virtual self when we don’t have the hard-wired instinct to protect it in the way we do our own bodies?

Valve signals hardware is the future of distribution

Gabe Newell, the co-founder and managing director at PC gaming powerhouse Valve Software, recently spoke with Kotaku about the shifting landscape of games distribution and his company’s move into the living room.

Ten years ago Valve established Steam as a primary distribution channel for its titles and add-on content. Just this month they’ve released Big Picture, establishing a foothold in the living room by essentially porting the Valve experience to the TV. With a new controller and interface, user’s can play games, stream content, and access Steam through Big Picture’s front-end.

Speaking to Kotaku, Newell suggested that Valve and other competitors will release custom branded hardware solutions for the living room within the next year. User’s would be able to buy an official Valve gaming console (likely to be a lightweight PC or Linux device) and plug it into their TV. While this may seem surprising to many who have suggested that console gaming is in decline, Newell let slip the compelling hook for game’s developers.

“Well certainly our hardware will be a very controlled environment… If you want more flexibility, you can always buy a more general purpose PC. For people who want a more turnkey solution, that’s what some people are really gonna want for their living room.”

As content has dematerialized and gotten loose and slippery, content houses have been trying to figure out how to put the genie back in the bottle and retain control over their IP. Hardware offers such a controlled environment and, thanks in large part to Apple, hardware manufacturing is easier than it’s ever been. It wouldn’t be too surprising if, a few years down the road, Valve decides to lock down distribution completely by shunting all its users onto a low-priced piece of branded hardware. Plug it into your TV, launch Steam, and pull content direct from the Valve server farm.

Now imagine if they release Half Life 3 and you can only buy it through their hardware…

[Related: Hardware, the ugly stepchild of Venture Capital, is having a glamor moment]

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Recent Notes on Reality Capture & 3D Printing

It may be symptomatic of our times but the delta between weak signal & fast-moving trend seems to be getting shorter & shorter. Compelling innovations are bootstrapped rapidly into full-fledged solutions, enabling a highly-efficient lab-to-home ecosystem. While it’s been percolating for years, the emergence of consumer 3D printing really only landed on the hype cycle in the past 12 months or so but in this time there have been considerable advances.

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Election 2012: Stories and Statistics

When the 2012 election returns came in there was no more tragic and revealing figure than Karl Rove. His live reaction in the Fox newsroom after the network called Ohio for the Democratic incumbent was that of a man at odds with reality. He simply couldn’t grasp that his narrative had slipped free from the world, the map hewn in twain by the sudden jutting of an unexpected iceberg.

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so you want to migrate to the cloud…

Many mature software companies are now in the awkward position of trying to migrate their heavyweight legacy solutions from the desktop into the uncertain domain of the cloud. Fortune 500’s are slow to adapt, preferring to leverage their cash-cow back catalog for as long as possible while gently testing the waters with lightweight solutions more aligned with marketing than their core execution layer. The results often paint the erstwhile-giants as out-of-touch and late to the game, delivering simple offerings that fail to successfully integrate with the evolving needs of their user base. The solution is not an easy one, requiring much greater commitment and risk than most CFO’s can stomach. But the cloud is not going away and the alternative to full adoption is to be resigned to a narrowing niche.

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InsideScoop

inside scoop – interviewing the santa cruz city council candidates

Last night I was on a panel of 3 with Peggy Dolgenos and Cliff Hodges interviewing our local candidates for Santa Cruz City Council. I represented the Santa Cruz Geeks, one of the event sponsors along with SC NEXT, Cruzio Internet, and Civinomics. The legendary Kuumbwa Jazz center hosted the event (I was on the same stage once held by Booby Hutchinson, McCoy Tyner, Pharaoh Sanders, Joe Zawinul, and many other greats). Our local darlings, the Penny Ice Creamery, brought free waffle cones. Billed as “Inside Scoop“, we crowdsourced questions from the community, then reviewed, consolidated, & massaged them into ~100 min of public examination. The event was fun, and warm, organic, and surprisingly challenging to the candidates and the panel.

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Me, in the Kinect point cloud (video still).

my home project: kinect hacking

Over the weekend I bought a Kinect and wired it to my Mac. I’m following the O’Reilly/Make book, Making Things See, by Greg Borenstein (who kindly tells me I’m an amateur machine vision researcher). With the book I’ve set up Processing, a JAVA-lite coding environment, and the open source Kinect libraries, SimpleOpenNI & NITE. I’ve spent a good chunk of the weekend reading a hundred pages into the book and working through the project tutorials and I’ve generated some interesting interactions and imagery. There’s also a ton of tutorial vids on You Tube, natch, to help cut through the weeds and whatnot.

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