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November 2004

The Pro-Am Revolution

Or, 'How enthusiasts are changing our economy and society'. A Demos book:

From astronomy to activism, from surfing to saving lives, Pro-Ams - people pursuing amateur activities to professional standards - are an increasingly important part of our society and economy.

For Pro-Ams, leisure is not passive consumerism but active and participatory, it involves the deployment of publicly accredited knowledge and skills, often built up over a long career, which has involved sacrifices and frustrations.

The 20th century witnessed the rise of professionals in medicine, science, education, and politics. In one field after another, amateurs and their ramshackle organisations were driven out by people who knew what they were doing and had certificates to prove it.

The Pro-Am Revolution argues this historic shift is reversing. We're witnessing the flowering of Pro-Am, bottom-up self-organisation and the crude, all or nothing, categories of professional or amateur will need to be rethought.

Based on in-depth interviews with a diverse range of Pro-Ams and containing new data about the extent of Pro-Am activity in the UK, this report proposes new policies to support and encourage valuable Pro-Am activity.

Full text can be downloaded here (pdf), under the Demos Open Access licence.

My thanks for this link to Ian, who has juxtaposed Demos' words with the BBC's spun version of the same.

Robert ParkeHarrison

My thanks to Dickon for this link.

All images © ParkeHarrison 

He [Robert ParkeHarrison] comes down on the side of lamentation but expresses it with an unusual combination of poetic license, laboriously constructed props and a wry and melancholy, vaguely allusive sense of myth. He appears in every picture, in a black suit and white shirt with no tie, a kind of Everyman or a minor employee of the universe, patiently, dutifully doing a job that’s too big for him. That job is essentially to take care of a devastated Earth with inadequate equipment. He works or performs obscure rituals in large and empty landscapes beneath gray skies. Perhaps this is one man’s private way of saying that neither pollution, global warming nor digitalization can entirely extinguish the hands-on experience and human desire to create. New York Times (Feb 4, 2000)

Trained as a photographer, ParkeHarrison did not follow in the well-practiced wake of environmentally charged photojournalists or social documentarians. Theirs was a cautionary tale fixed in the present day; it did not always project a future. Instead, ParkeHarrison conjures up a destiny in which humankind’s overuse of the land has led to environments spent and abandoned. The veracity of the photograph, from which all his images are constructed, provides the convincing backdrop for narratives of separation and loss. And the influences from literature, theater, cinema, and painting enrich the work with symbols supportive of the artist’s universal subjects, particularly the struggles of the Everyman… Curator’s Comments on ‘The Architect’s Brother’

le Monde/six apart


This via Loic Le Meur, who also tells us that: has not only launched blogs for many journalists, but also blogs for their readers.

Here are the journalists' blogs online today:

Big Picture, par Corine Lesnes
La république des Livres, par Pierre Assouline
Do not fold, par Virginie Luc
Technochroniques, par Tariq Krim
Transnets, par Francis Pisani
Langue sauce piquante
Copier - Décoller
Europe : pour ou contre la Constitution ?

A few blogs of Le Monde readers started even before the official launch next week:
Pierre Bachy
trblt (ressources pédagogiques)

Faites simple

This was the watchword of Escoffier and it's surely the way all things computing have to go. Back in October, The Economist had two articles: 'Make it simple' and 'Now you see it, now you don't'. The latter was sub-titled, 'To be truly successful, a complex technology needs to “disappear”', and the former, 'The next thing in technology … is not just big but truly huge: the conquest of complexity'.

Behind many a "simple" UI lies so much thought, inventiveness and deliberation: my work is not in software design, but I've learned a lot from listening in on discussions such as that generated by Matt Jones writing about the design of Technorati's UI. (His bookshelf has also set me thinking, in the spirit of what Chris Allen calls 'integrating different domains of knowledge in order to better understand … human behavior'.) I'm composing this in TypePad's new WYSIWYG editor, of which Matt Haughey says:

When I first read about the new wysiwyg interface to Typepad, I didn't think it was such a big deal. I've seen dozens of wysiwyg forms before and few were anything but annoying. The Typepad UI is amazing though. It goes way beyond making text bold, italics, or 64 different colors. Today I created a post where I uploaded a graphic, aligned it to the right, and filled in text around it. I didn't think the UI would handle it … It was capable of uploading the image, storing it, and displaying it via CSS and I could continue writing text around it. Fantastic. I've never seen a wysiwyg interface that could do something like that and my hat's off to whoever wrote the monster javascript this application must have required. It's as close as you can get to actually writing posts in their final format.

The smart TypePad editor is one kind of "simple" future and it's a kind with which I can readily identify. It's the same future I hope I hear in Russell Beattie's impatience when he sets up and knocks down a view that says, 'What you know now is really all you need to know and all this new fangled mobile stuff is just so much hype and buzz'; or in his comparison of the relative "richness" of Yahoo Mobile Search and Google SMS.  UIs and devices that people can take to, use, not have to wrestle with — but actually enjoy. Teaching needs UIs and devices like this and their lack is perhaps the greatest impediment to enthusiasm for IT amongst students.

Everyone will benefit from 'a focus on computing for people … After all, when we put place before people, we put structure before agency, and technology before sociality' ('On Cities and Technologies', Anne Galloway). Again and again, be it blogging tools (Om Malik), CMS systems (McGee), mobile phones (where is the iPhone?), we all need reminding that our 'intelligence should be used to accommodate really simple user and programmer models, not to build really complex ones' (Adam Bosworth).

Footnote: RSS feeds haven't worked the revolution in simple living originally envisioned by some — telling laments by, inter alia, Jeffrey Veen and Danah Boyd. A suggested solution is to fall back on sites where algorithms/editors filter and select feed items (Scobleizer). Buried in all this is the question of whether RSS is opt-in authenticated Email. In the absence of any better suggestion, I take the Dave Winer approach:

It's not like email. Let the river of items flow through your queue, scroll over them with a scroll bar, and don't let the software tell you you're falling behind. Your time is what's valuable, there's no value to the items you didn't read. If it's important it'll pop up again. RSS is not email. Don't sort them out into little boxes that you have to go to, make them flow to you, in a river, unsorted. I wish people would just listen to this simple idea, so many people are using RSS the wrong way.


But then there's the really simple, really useful future which has a lot to do with supplying tools that can make a substantial difference to the lives of those who have much less than we do — "we", the relatively wealthy, literate blogging community whose lives afford us enough time and the technological wherewithal in which to write and read online.

Maslacak wrote a short piece, The Future of Communications is Ignorance, which concluded:

… regardless of how far we've all gone with technology, and regardless of the fact that I can call any place in the world for as little as 3 cents a minute, there are still those on this planet who cannot feed themselves, let alone use the Internet to write idle thoughts on some journal. It would seem that every technological progress serves as another barrier between us and those who are really suffering in the world. It's as if we are creating more and more walls, layers of abstraction, so that we may continue living in ignorance, so that we may never have to wake up from our self-induced collective commas. And while we may dismiss it with great ease by saying to ourselves that we are merely a single human being who cannot truly change the world, it is such thoughts that keep us all in this collective technological prison. This harness of our adulthood. That, my friends, is the real ball and chain of our lives. Our collective ignorance.

And earlier this month, Don Parks wrote: 'Other than greed, I can find little motivation to make the life of brats with six thumbs who go around taking photos just so they can keep in touch with friends.  For me, it's more rewarding to address (and) think about … the forgotten people: people who are struggling with life everyday, people who don't know how to use a computer let alone type, people whose lives might be improved with down to earth application of the latest technologies.' I loved his vision of blogging in the near future:



Whether it's a small store owner in France or a grandmother selling fish off a cart in China, their customers are increasingly addicted to information at their finger tip yet they are ill prepared to provide their customer's need for information.  Their 'content' are typically valid for just hours or even minutes yet they don't have time to update homepages. So handblogging comes to their rescue.  Original version of this idea was audio-oriented using telephones as the update device but I think cellphones equipped with a camera will be easier to use.


Holding all this together will be a challenge for the young whose education is now in our hands. Educators need to be up to speed and able to discuss the range of issues technological development brings with it.

Let the last note be up-beat:

Got very annoyed at the Design Council the other night. They were pitching their series of talks on 'Humanising Technology'. Strikes me as a very odd phrase: 'humanise technology'... To separate and demonise 'technology' seems false. It's what makes us human. It's our evolutionary distinctiveness. And anyway, what's so bad about technologising humans? Matt Jones

The Ukraine, democracy and civil rights

Like many, I am sure, I have been following the "revolution" in the Ukraine — through both conventional media and the blogs, Ukraine Revolution and Command Post. For a Polish perspective, see here and here. And if it’s just photos you want, go to this link.

Fascinatingly (link via Ross Mayfield), the Ukrainian democratic uprising is American-led, it would seem:

But while the gains of the orange-bedecked "chestnut revolution" are Ukraine's, the campaign is an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing that, in four countries in four years, has been used to try to salvage rigged elections and topple unsavoury regimes.

Funded and organised by the US government, deploying US consultancies, pollsters, diplomats, the two big American parties and US non-government organisations, the campaign was first used in Europe in Belgrade in 2000 to beat Slobodan Milosevic at the ballot box.

Richard Miles, the US ambassador in Belgrade, played a key role. And by last year, as US ambassador in Tbilisi, he repeated the trick in Georgia, coaching Mikhail Saakashvili in how to bring down Eduard Shevardnadze.

Ten months after the success in Belgrade, the US ambassador in Minsk, Michael Kozak, a veteran of similar operations in central America, notably in Nicaragua, organised a near identical campaign to try to defeat the Belarus hardman, Alexander Lukashenko.

That one failed. "There will be no Kostunica in Belarus," the Belarus president declared, referring to the victory in Belgrade. But experience gained in Serbia, Georgia and Belarus has been invaluable in plotting to beat the regime of Leonid Kuchma in Kiev.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, civil rights are at sixes and sevens. Today's Sunday Telegraph carried an astonishing story about a man being arrested in Central London for carrying a Victorinox Swiss multi-tool (a potential terrorist, clearly) and, earlier this year, the young British journalist and blogger, Azeem Azhar, reflected:

Tony Blair is going to announce a five-year plan which will mark the end of the "1960s liberal consensus" on law and order. [BBC].

And the Tories are no better:

Countless millions of people up and down the country are fed up with being assailed by foul language, bad behaviour, the burning of things, and then, apparently, a penalty that is more of a badge of honour for the culprits.

The PM tells us that people want "rules, order and proper behaviour" which sounds like a reactionary crowd pleaser to me and it contrasts sharply with the open-minded consultation on prostitution.

I'm not sure if I want rules, order and proper behaviour. I am certain that I want the maximum liberty consistent with similar liberties for others.

I am certain I want a rational and analytic approach to legislation rather than an emotional and political kludge. (For example, might own-race policing be better at reducing property crime than mixed race policing? Shouldn't we legalise drugs ?)

My craw is burning by the increasing conservatism of our so-called tolerant Government. The world is not going to hell in any hand cart, except the one pushed by Messrs Bush, Blair and Blunkett.

Political idealism seems in short supply, but I would like to celebrate here the work of Clive Stafford Smith, a former pupil of the school I teach at (and once its head boy), and a light in dark times. He featured on last week's BBC-broadcast programme, Desert Island Discs:

Clive Stafford Smith spent more than twenty-five years representing people on death row (in the US). He’s saved hundreds of lives and counts his clients among his friends. He says his work is his calling – one he was drawn to after writing an essay on capital punishment while at school. Initially he thought it was a history essay and was appalled to find the death sentence was still in use. He planned to become a campaigning journalist, but a summer spent meeting prisoners on death row inmates convinced him that he would be able to achieve more by representing them directly. So he trained in law and set up his own legal practice to enable him to do so.

Where are tomorrow's visionaries going to come from?  Are today's schools and UK examination syllabuses the right seed-bed for the kind of leadership needed to create a peaceful and equitable world?

RDF and the semantic web

I was watching, and enjoying, Ben Hammersley strutting his stuff in his RDF presentation (.mov), and then I read Adam Bosworth:

I think Danny's equally correct observation in the comment on this blog that it would be easier to reason about data if data were of this form is a case of desire obscuring judgement, something we all know something about at some point in our lives. I've spent my life working with normal customers and with normal programmers. And it is my considered and thoughtful judgement that while the concept underlying RDF is simple, even brilliantly simple, it isn't how most of us think about data. In short, while it is simple, it isn't intuitive. Secondly, when transcribed into XML I think it can quickly become downright prolix. This sometimes happens. Expressions, if turned into some sort of XML in fix parse tree, are unreadable. Why do I think this? Because, quite simply, when I read it I get confused and when I read RSS 2.0 I don't. One seems clear. The other seems filled with namespaces and RDF:abouts and so on. However, this is one case where I hope I'm wrong and Danny and Tim Berners-Lee are right. It would be wonderful if we could effortlessly reason about all the data on the web. Only time will tell.

America looks beyond? We wish …

What a great idea (link via glassdog) — America Looks Beyond:

At PEW Charitable Trusts, we build futures. And thanks to a partnership with Bill Gates and The Gates Foundation, that future is looking bright. Together, we have pooled our resources to launch a $1 billion dollar a year plan for peace. America Looks Beyond provides tomorrow generation with opportunities today. Starting in 2005, every high school student in America is going to be offered a six-week trip to a third world country. To broaden their horizons. To gain a more intimate understanding of the world. And to fight the global War on Terror in a positive way, through education and first-hand knowledge of how so much of the world struggles to survive.

If America wants to help end the violence of war and terrorism, we need to build bridges to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, many Americans have little knowledge of what life is like in other countries. A study by the National Geographic Society found that eighty-five percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 could not find Iraq on a map. More than half could not locate India, and almost thirty percent could not identify the Pacific Ocean.

In the worst case, this ignorance can lead to an inability to consider perspectives and interests other than our own. We believe the best way for young people to learn about the world is not in a classroom, but through first-hand experience. Through America Looks Beyond, students will gain invaluable knowledge about different cultures and countries.

America is a vast country, and we have to work hard not to lose touch with the rest of the world. The knowledge students gain from spending six weeks in a third world country will not only enrich their lives, but will help close the gulf of understanding that currently exists between America and the rest of the world.

We believe America Looks Beyond is the first step toward winning the war on terrorism and building a more peaceful world. We're excited about this project, and we hope you are too.

A big improvement on the 'War teaches Americans geography' (Rhode Island graffiti) approach. For sure — only, it's a hoax. As glassdog quickly reported:

This could possibly be one of the most inspired investments in the future of the country seen around these parts in years. Named America Looks Beyond, it's described as being "explicitly an alternative to the militaristic take on the war on terror." Sound too good to be true? It is. A quick look on ARIN's domain whois records reveal the site is registered to pranksters Ad Busters. Dare to dream, anyway.

Dare to dream, indeed …

The real future

It's a bumper night. This from Don Parks:

I often feel as if I am living in a river of time.  When I was young, I didn't really care what might be downstream.  As I got older and experienced many harrowing turns of the river, I found myself looking farther and farther ahead.

What I just realized was that my sense of now changed over the years to include the future, near and far.  An event that will happen feels almost as real to me as an event happening now, just as the shape of the river downstream affects the flow of the river upstream.

Don is the author of one of my favourite meditations on death and the net.