The Reboot8 conference in Copenhagen - "for practical visionaries", says their website - goes this year under the theme "renaissance" (lower-case "r"), and talks will range from interconnectedness to politics, from "the renaissance of Karl Marx" to networked objects (full program). "One thing Reboot isn't about is easy realities, bubble thinking, "new new" things that have little relation to real life", says Thomas Madsen-Mygdal, the conference's producer. Let's see - the conference is on.
The opening speaker is Michael Thomsen, a Danish researcher and geek who contends that "there is a radical blindness in individuals and societies when it comes to radical change", and leads the audience through a short history of communication technologies and their impact "in the rise, fall and rebirth of cultures and empires".
Malcom J. Matson is a serial entrepreneur (he founded COLT) and the founder of the OPLAN foundation, which promotes open public local access networks as an "utility" - think of connectivity like electricity. OPLANs are springing up everywhere and come in many shapes and sizes - fiber and wireless citywide networks in big cities such as Philadelphia or San Francisco or Amsterdam, or small ones linking yak farmers in Nepal (picture right, from the BBC). In Malcom's definition, OPLANs are geographically defined, not owned by a telco operator, and "open" (used by both public and private, individuals and organizations; and independent of any service or content that runs over them). These networks are generally seen as desirable, but opposition to them is strong, particularly (obviously) from the telecom industry. But, he says, we are entering a new era: In a broadband world, any business model that differentiated between "content creators" and "content consumers" (that's typically the telecom operator model) "is fundamentally flawed". Hence, "devastation in the telecom market is gonna be immense, we've seen nothing yet" (witness the 41-billion-US$ loss just announced by Vodafone). Matson is a strong advocate of WiFi and municipal/community networks, and a fun speaker, but he wastes his speech bashing telecoms rather than talking about the new "open" approach.
Michael Neutze, a designer from Germany, is up next talking about visualization of complexity. His starting point is that most of today's visualizations (such as those often found on newspapers, or the default Powerpoint formats) do not give real insights into complexity. "There is alot of chartjunk out there", he says using a concept by Edward Tufte (Wikipedia profile).
"A perspective is an individual point of view", he says showing lots of convincing pictures: "visualizing information means presenting a perspective on data". He mentions Tufte's new book (published last week) where he introduces the concept of "sparklines", simple word-sized graphics tracking developments over time and spelling out the latest - or only the relevant - data point (several very interesting examples here, and a basic sparkline builder here). Neutze discusses 3D interfaces, search results displays, maps, tag clouds, and more. "Paper is characterized by high density of data"; but online, we can use the additional dimensions of interactivity and motion, which "can let us understand 20'000 datapoints in 20 seconds" (and Neutze shows it, using an animated visualization of demographic data over a period of 100 years). It's a very visual speech, and all the slides are on Michael's Flickr page.
Adam Arvidsson, a professor of media studies at the University of Copenhagen, believes that marxism is an interesting framework for analyzing our times. Yes, marxism from Karl Marx, the German philosopher/revolutionary: if you thought it/he was definitely out with the end of the Cold War, it's time to reconsider, says Arvidsson. In his "Foundations of the critique of political economy" ("Grundrisse", 1857), Marx introduced the concept of "general intellect", suggesting that at a certain point in the development of capitalism the creation of wealth would no longer depend only on labour and capital, but also on technology and organization. Hence a new mode of production will be found in the "development of the general powers of the social brain".
Today we would call that "social intelligence", which technology has embodied in social software, peer2peer, wikis, open source and other forms of cooperative production modes. These rely decreasingly on control of labour and capital ("it becomes vampiric") and more on competences and the ability to forge social relations. What is the production value of things like Skype and MySpace? It rests in part on the fact of creating the technology/tools themselves, but "most of it rests on the new and advanced forms of social cooperation that they make possible". This means that "autonomous non-capitalist forces of production are emerging within capitalism itself", says Arvidsson, which "will lead to post-capitalism". What this means is not really clear ("post-capitalism" having as much meaning as "post-modernism"...) but Arvidsson sees "the current system of capitalism governance - neoliberalism - collapsing".
Mark Hurst, a guru of user experience, closes the morning with a talk about "bit literacy". His premise is that while there are numerous advantages in the electronic/online distribution of information (faster, cheaper, deeper, real-time, doesn't require to cut trees, etc) there are also disadvantages. In particular: "bits are not weightless". "Bits have weight, have mass, and they weigh us down even more than when you pick up a stack of newspapers". He's talking about the psychological weight of all the bits that are asking for our attention: e-mail, news, videos, data, etc. Using e-mail ("the culprit that everyone is beginning to love to hate") as an example, he proceeds to lay out his "philosophy on how to deal with bits" which he calls "bit literacy" (reference to "computer literacy"). Hurst wrote a few years ago an essay on "managing incoming e-mail" (full text in PDF). The core is on finding the discipline to get the inbox count down to zero every working day, he says (I'm not sure I agree with his premise - I use my inbox and outbox as action-items checklists - and I'm pretty sure everybody who's been on e-mail long enough has developed his/her own strategies, folder structures, habits).
Hurst's 4-steps plan: Step 1: delete spam; Step 2: Identify personal e-mails and reply if needed, or print them, and then get them out of the inbox (put them in a separate folder, delete them); Step 3: delete the least important messages (people just answering "yes", meaningless CCs, etc); Step 4: take actions on those of the remaining messages that require it. That's the decisive element of Hurst's approach: "we all have a hard time managing action items". He suggests acting right away on all those that require less than two minutes. But then, we are left with the big action items. And "you've got to get those out of the inbox", into a to-do list. The problem with most existing to-do lists is that they lack prioritization and flexibility. They tend to be long (but "you don't need to have under your eyes today the to-dos for next week") and unstructured. He offers an alternative which he's developing: Gootodo, an online to-do-list tool which includes some very smart features for scheduling, keeping track of to-dos and of actions requested to others, including ways to "e-mail tasks to the future" so that they don't occupy your present.
(I missed a few other speeches: Nicolas Nova has a good write-up of those by Matt Webb on the characteristics of human senses, and Ulla-Maaria Mutanen on crafter economics).