Crop-mobs, seedbombs and mall-farms

Paul Raven @ 01-06-2010

The Zeitgeist seems to have developed an obsession with agriculture. Observe:

Ecological fashion trends or economic necessities? I’m thinking a bit of both, and wondering how long they’ll last… hopefully for a while.

Speaking of sustainable living and community development, Futurismic fiction alumnus Douglas Lain (author of the grimly excellent “Resurfacing Billy”) plans to write a “radical self-help book” called Pick Your Battle, which will be…

… a book that will explain and explore urban gleaning, situationist theory, and unschooling while telling the story of my own and my family’s attempt to revolutionize our everyday lives. It will support efforts to organize local foraging, community gardens, psychogeographic field trips, and a confrontation with the current system.

He’s got a funding drive running on Kickstarter; if a mash-up of science fiction, situationism and sustainable living sounds like your cup of tea, why not go pledge Doug a dollar or two to keep him fed while he writes it? An interesting topic, and an adventurous funding model for creative writing.

Cursor: a community-based fiction publishing business model

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2010

No idea how I managed to miss this one before, but Richard Nash – founder and former head honcho of Soft Skull Press – is starting a new publishing venture called Cursor which promises (among other things, like a strong focus on niche community-building) to do away with the exploitative life-of-the-copyright contracts with which authors are traditionally saddled [via Damien Walter]:

… the tweak is pretty radical. It’s not really a tweak at all, it’s a complete break with publishing norms. […]

No more life-of-the-copyright contracts.

Instead: three year contracts.

Yup, from a contract that locks you in till seventy years after you’re dead, to a three year contract. Renewable annually thereafter. Which means after three years you can walk. Or stay, but stick it to us for better royalties because there’s gonna be a movie. Or stay with us because with all the additional formats and revenue opportunities we’re creating above and beyond what any publisher has to offer, you’re making more money than ever before.

You see, most publishers have accepted they’re not going to make money publishing your book. They’re publishing your book and a bunch of other books like it so they can have exclusive rights over as much intellectual property as possible. Such that if, three or five or nine years down the road, you win the NBA, or the Orange, or there’s a movie, or an Oprah pick, your whole backlist starts to sell but they don’t have to pay you one single extra red percent in royalties.

That’s where their profits come from, from being able to NOT have to renegotiate royalties when your books start selling better than they expected.


The publishing industry is in a state of turmoil. New sales channels are arising, new formats, new terms of sale.

Authors deserve the chance to renegotiate as the industry evolves.

The number of books published has increased forty-fold since 1990, the number of readers has remained broadly static.

Authors deserve to be actively connected with readers, not just be made available to readers…

Well, you can colour me intrigued – that’s a project to keep an eye on. Much as it’s been good to see the big houses looking at new ways of doing things, their responses to the times have been as small and grudging as they think they can get away with (e.g. Orbit’s digital short story publishing plan); Nash’s decision to empower the creators first and foremost seems to stand in stark contrast to the blanket rights options I keep reading about (which seem to be a literary echo of the infamous “360 deals” recently made in the upper earnings bracket of the recording industry), and aiming for small dedicated niche communities is very much in keeping with the philosophies of the leading edge of business and marketing punditry (not to mention social media architecture).

Bughunting in the city’s software

Paul Raven @ 22-04-2010

Ah, internet serendipity – a few days after my post about SeeClickFix and systems for crowdsourcing bugfixes in the urban system*, Adam “Speedbird” Greenfield posts about improving “frameworks for citizen responsiveness” [via Chairman Bruce]:

So how would you close the loop? How would you arrange things so that the originator, other members of the public, the city bureaucracy itself and other interested parties are all notified that the issue has been identified and is being dealt with? How might we identify the specific individuals or teams tasked with responding to the issue, allow people to track the status of issues they’re reported, and ensure that observed best practices and lessons learned are gathered in a resolution database?

In a talk I heard him give a few months back, technology entrepreneur Jyri Engeström suggested stealing a page from the practice of software development as a way of addressing shared problem spaces more generally. He pointed out that, during his time at Google, employees turned the tools developed to track open issues in software under development toward other domains of common experience, like the shuttle buses the company provides to haul them back and forth between San Francisco and Mountain View.

When hassles arose with the bus service, employees treated them just like they would known issues in some application they were working on: they entered their complaints into an existing bug tracker, which provided each case with a unique identifier, a space to characterize it more fully…and perhaps most importantly, the name of a party responsible for closing out the ticket.

The general insight Jyri derived from his experience got me to thinking. An issue-tracking board for cities? Something visual and Web-friendly, that’s simultaneously citizen-facing and bureaucracy-facing? Heck, that begins to sound like a pretty neat way to address the problems with systems like 311 and FixMyStreet.

Seems pretty logical (and pretty much what SeeClickFix are aiming towards, albeit a lot more fully featured and comprehensive). That said, the system relies on the same sort of user tenacity that any big collective project requires: making it easier to see where pressure needs to be applied still requires that the pressure to be applied, if you see what I mean, and maybe it’s naive to hope that the majority of citizens will care enough to get involved (because the vast majority of, say, Ubuntu users, certainly don’t bother doing much beyond turning up and asking n00b questions that five minutes of searching would solve for them**). Then again, lowering barriers to participation, so on and so forth… maybe if it’s done right, people would use it.

Or perhaps this is the natural outcome of geeks developing ideas for the wider world: they’re gonna be geeky ideas, and geeky ideas don’t always float the boats of everyone else. Is Greenfield’s framework just another case of everything looking like a nail when you’re well-versed in hammer deployment?

[ * “… crowdsourcing bugfixes in the urban system…” Yeah, I know, I felt awful typing it, but there’s no less pretentious way of saying the same thing without using another two dozen words, so Web2.0 speak was the only way out. I blame the future. ]

[ ** I fully include myself under this admittedly damning and sweeping indictment. ]

The greying of Wikipedia

Paul Raven @ 25-11-2009

citation needed!Despite continued growth as one of the most-visited sites on the web, Wikipedia has a problem – it’s losing editors faster than it’s gaining new ones. Cue lots of veiled “told you so” from the Wall Street Journal [via /message]:

… as it matures, Wikipedia, one of the world’s largest crowdsourcing initiatives, is becoming less freewheeling and more like the organizations it set out to replace. Today, its rules are spelled out across hundreds of Web pages. Increasingly, newcomers who try to edit are informed that they have unwittingly broken a rule — and find their edits deleted, according to a study by researchers at Xerox Corp.

“People generally have this idea that the wisdom of crowds is a pixie dust that you sprinkle on a system and magical things happen,” says Aniket Kittur, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied Wikipedia and other large online community projects. “Yet the more people you throw at a problem, the more difficulty you are going to have with coordinating those people. It’s too many cooks in the kitchen.”

What isn’t clear, at least from this article, is which editors are leaving. A few years ago, all you could find were articles complaining that Wikipedia had too many unskilled and uninformed editors, and that it was hence a valueless project; now that people are being deterred from fiddling because the cost of entry is too high for casual contributions, that’s the problem. C’mon, people; you can’t have it both ways.

Rather than unseating my faith in crowdsourcing, these developments at Wikipedia are pretty much in line with what I had expected to happen. The initial landslide of popularity was like a new frontier, and it inevitably attracted a lot of chancers and grifters – not least, I suspect, because the SEO Google-juice from outbound Wikipedia links is powerful stuff indeed. I’m inclined to see Wikipedia (and a lot of other web-based projects) as an emergent system, and this shedding of casual contributors makes perfect sense; not everyone cares enough to do it properly, and the system self-adjusts to exclude those low-value contributions. [image by mmetchley]

That said, Wikipedia isn’t completely emergent and spontaneous; the Wikimedia Foundation steers and directs it as it sees fit. But even so, it’s still surprisingly reliable by comparison to classically-produced encyclopedias… and those who accuse it of inherent bias have obviously never seen Conservapedia (which I’m not going to do the favour of linking to – just Google it if you fancy horrifying yourself with some ultra-conservative historical revisionism). Sure, it’s not perfect… but what is? I’d be interested to see a catalogue of the errors that a paper like the Wall Street Journal makes in the course of a year for comparison…

That said, there’s one statistic about Wikipedia that is fairly disappointing (though far from surprising):

A survey the foundation conducted last year determined that the average age of an editor is 26.8 years, and that 87% of them are men.

Um. Not so much a greying, after all.

Private security forces on the rise in Detroit

Paul Raven @ 29-10-2009

run-down Michigan real estateDetroit is arguably the reluctant poster-child for the bleeding edge of economic decline in the US, and as such it’s the place to watch to see how things might begin developing elsewhere. Which means that as the police – stretched by underfunding and escalating workload – concentrate their attentions elsewhere, we might start seeing an increase in private security firms patrolling some neighbourhoods. [via GlobalGuerillas; image by jessicareader]

Detroit’s problems come chiefly from its huge number of vacant foreclosed properties, which act as a magnet for criminality. The residents of those neighbourhoods who’ve managed to hold on to their homes (despite their plunge in value) are keen to see that their value doesn’t drop further, and so they’re willing to pay for surveillance and a visible presence – up to $30 per month, apparently.

But the line between surveillance and enforcement is a thin one, and as new security outfits proliferate, it’s not a stretch to imagine persons of less than scrupulous morals getting in on the only booming business in a broken town. And then it’s a short step to checkpoints at the barricades between neighbourhoods, armed patrols, CCTV saturation as only ever previously seen in the happy-go-lucky UK… sure, it’s a pessimistic scenario, but I wouldn’t say unrealistically so.

More likely is that the potential  threat of such an outcome will allow the gated community business model to proliferate. After all, property is cheap in the worst affected areas… so you go in, you by up a few streets, repair the broken buildings, install security infrastructure, and let out the properties with privacy and law enforcement served as a side-dish, paid for as part of the rent or mortgage payments. Hello, burbclaves.

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