Monthly Archives: August 2014


The People Get The Internet They Deserve

There’s currently a slew of articles, posts and tweets  about ‘the future of the internet’.  Stuart Jeffriestablet_smartphone1  article in this week’s Guardian (headlined ‘ How The Web Lost Its Way – And Its Founding Principles) has, at the time of writing,  generated nearly 500 comments in less than 24 hours. This comes hot on the heels of Charles Leadbeater’s Nominet Report ‘A Better Web’, which neatly identifies ‘the mixture of wonder and unease that we currently feel about digital technologies’, citing  the ability of Facebook’s ads to know what you want for birthday presents better then your partner does. Charlie’s report, on balance, is optimistic about our capacity to use the web for purposeful social activism and spends most of its sixteen pages highlighting ways in which innovative organisations are mobilising mass participation for good.

Yet the media coverage of the report primarily honed in on the abuse faced by some women  (Cambridge classicist Mary Beard being a specific example) on social media, with the report’s other important issues – collaborative consumption, entrepreneurship, care networks and new ways of learning – barely getting a mention. There’s clearly an issue over the abuse that some prominent women (and men) receive on Twitter, but a recent Demos report casts doubt on the claim that misogyny is rife on social media. According to an article in the Huffington Post this week, around 5% of tweets sent to male celebrities are abusive, compared to 1% sent to females.

So, press and TV, not content with actually provoking spikes in abuse on Twitter – the Demos report shows that programmes like Big Brother are followed by significant increases in tweets  using words like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ – the media then makes misogyny the story when reacting to reports showing how the web can be a better force for social good. Some people who reviewed OPEN argued that I was being naively idealistic in focussing on the millions of small acts of kindness perpetrated every day on social media. I prefer to think that I’m trying to restore a sense of balance.

But what of Jeffries’ claim that the original egalitarian ideals of the internet have been ‘corporatised’? He quotes Wired’s Chris Anderson in identifying a subtle but significant shift:

“Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open web to semi-closed platforms that use the internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the iPhone model of mobile computing. “

In other words, our online lives are increasingly spent in apps, which are essentially there to sell us stuff and hoover up data on us. In part this is a generational thing: many younger people live online almost exclusively through their phones, or tablets, making browsing the non-corporate world of discussion forums a less smooth experience than, say, buying shoes on eBay. And there’s no doubt that attempts to end the principle of ‘net neutrality’ (which I blogged about earlier) should have us all concerned. But does this mean that we’ve abandoned any hope of a free internet?

I don’t think so – at least, not yet. But there is  no question that the people get the internet they deserve. Social media simply holds up a mirror to ourselves: if we don’t like what we see, we have the power to challenge it, and ultimately change it. If we think the world of apps is little more than naked capitalism, then we can make our own apps for good.

As I wrote in the book, it’s arguable that we gave our privacy away rather than have it stolen from us. Does that makes us helpless idiots, or people who, by sharing information about ourselves, connect with others and, in turn, discover our better selves?

Culture of fear

Each new media invention triggers its own moral panic.  Socrates complained that learning to write would encourage forgetfulness; comic books were supposed to promote juvenile delinquency. In 1981, the British Parliament debated the “Control of Space Invaders (and other Electronic Games) Bill” out of concern for Space Invaders’ addictiveness and potential for causing ‘deviancy’. The bill was defeated by only 20 votes. Seriously, we almost banned Space Invaders.

So, perhaps we’re living through our own moral panic around social media? Or maybe Douglas Adams (as ever) got it right when he described our reactions to technology:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Of course we need to stay vigilant, because the internet is just too alluring and powerful for bad people not to want to commandeer it. But it’s a little early for moral panic.





The Liberation of Trust


If there’s a better social and political analyst than Thomas Friedman, I’ve yet to meet him or her. It’s not just the depth of his pieces (see his New York Times interview, this week-end with President Obama for helping us see the guy we knew was always in there) – it’s the breadth too. The World Is Flat remains a brilliant wide-angle view of globalisation, but I was a little surprised to see that ‘disintermediation’ was missing from his list of 10 forces driving these tectonic shifts.

Disintermediation (simply stated, it’s the process of cutting out the middle-men) is perhaps the biggest social, economic and (soon) political force re-casting how we live. I had another reminder of it a few weeks ago. On a family trip, four of us were stuck in Paddington station in London where multiple signal failures had turned the place into a hot, sticky, hell-hole. The train we wanted (to Slough) was not likely to leave for 2 hours. So, we looked for a taxi – as did thousands of others. My son then took out his phone, registered us with Uber (the sharing economy’s paid-for lift service), put in our location and before we knew it, Mohammed had turned up in his very comfortable Audi to take us to Slough for less than half the quoted black-cab price. The whole thing took less than five minutes.

Friedman recently interviewed Airbnb’s co-founder, Brian Chesky, in the New York Times. The exponential growth of the sharing economy can be seen in Airbnb’s ascent: on July 5th 2014, 330,000 stayed in a house/castle/apartment/yurt courtesy of the company. On July 5th 2012, that number was 4,000.

Although Friedman’s article was entitled “And now for a bit of good news” that isn’t the whole story, of course. Disintermediation is connecting us but it’s also cutting jobs at a tremendous rate – which partly explains why New York hotel chains and London taxi drivers have tried to get Airbnb and Uber blocked. Brian Chesky see this as not losing jobs, just re-distributing labour:

“you may have many jobs and many different kinds of income, and you will accumulate different reputations, based on peer reviews, across multiple platforms of people. … You may start by delivering food, but as an aspiring chef you may start cooking your own food and delivering that and eventually you do home-cooked meals and offer a dining experience in your own home.”

Thomas Friedman (via

Whether this future scenario of sharing entrepreneurs delights or horrifies you, there’s no denying we’re going to see more of it. Mohammed has a nice car, and likes driving it and meeting people – why shouldn’t he accumulate a little spending money by doing a few hours Uber-work a week?

Friedman highlights the key to the sharing economy’s success, and the source of good news: our rediscovery of trust:

“Airbnb understood that the world was becoming hyperconnected — meaning the technology was there to connect any renter to any tourist or businessperson anywhere on the planet. And if someone created the trust platform to bring them together, huge value could be created for both parties. That was Airbnb’s real innovation.”

In my book ‘OPEN’ I describe the logic chain which is allowing the world to go SOFT:

1. Because we now can, we SHARE. We used to share what we saw (lolcats, etc), then we started to share what we knew, then we started to share what we owned, now we’re starting to share what we do;

2. If we want to share we need to be OPEN – this applies as much to big corporations leveraging  ‘radical transparency’  as it does to individuals communicating socially;

3. In order to share openly, we inevitably prioritise FREE: freedom to reproduce, re-mix and re-purpose, freedom to apply our skills in contexts previously denied to us, and freedom to communicate and collaborate directly – without the need for intermediaries;

4. And all of the above fall apart without TRUST. ‘Reputational capital’ (feed-back ratings) has become the new social currency, and we work hard to accumulate it and safeguard it. To paraphrase St Paul, these are four values that have emerged, and endured in the technological age – but the greatest of these is trust.

Strictly speaking, ‘disintermediation’ is something of a misnomer. We haven’t eliminated intermediaries (like travel agents, hoteliers and taxi companies). We’re merely replacing them with ‘digimediaries’ – digital platforms that give us the power in transactions.

The coming battle will be fought by the protectors of the old system’s vested interests, and, well, we the people. But we’ll see SOFT values spreading, and we’re only at the start of exploring what might be possible when we trust each other more. And this is why the ‘flattening’  of the world, as Friedman sees it, has taken place: because we’re winning the trust argument.For decades, our most established institutions have said we mustn’t trust each other. Pillars of society like investment companies, mortgage lenders,banks, the clergy, police and politicians.  They said ‘trust us, and we’ll protect you from the untrustworthy ones’. And then they abused that trust, spectacularly. Thanks to technology, however, we began to trust ourselves, against all their advice. And we found it exhilarating. So, now we think nothing of transferring money to a complete stranger’s account on eBay, or sleeping on a strangers couch, or paying a stranger to drive us somewhere (so long as their positive feedback rating is 99% or better).

Which brings me back to Mohammed. As we were speeding along the M4, I asked what safeguards Uber had in place. He told me that he could not operate if his customer feedback dropped below an agreed level. “But that also applies to you – I’ll rate you as a customer after this ride. And if your passenger rating slips, no-one will want to collect you!”

You see, we’ve even disintermediated trust.

Julius Yego

Yego The YouTube Champion

I gave a talk recently, about the power and ubiquity of social learning. I asked for the usual show of hands from people who had either shared or learned something in the past 7 days via social media, and got the usual 90%+ response.

I also voiced my view that it’s not just the day-to-day that is being learned – people are achieving extraordinary Shubham Jaglanskill/knowledge levels thanks to Google, Wikipedia and the like. I shared the story of the day I played golf with 9 year-old Shubham Jagpal, the under-12 World Junior Golf Champion who taught himself how to play golf in a remote rural Indian village, through watching YouTube videos of Tiger Woods (to answer your question, yes, he beat me by about 12 shots). Shubham’s father gave up everything to move to Delhi, so that his son could play on a real golf course, instead of the makeshift green and bunker he’d shaped in a local field, and a few years later, Shubham became world champ.

After my talk, one of the other presenters said this wasn’t possible. Hmmm…well that’s what Shubham told me, and I have no reason to disbelieve him.

But, just to show it IS possible,  last night I celebrated another success: that of Julius Yego. Julius is a Kenyan javelin thrower, who also learned his technique through YouTube videos. Despite tweaking his groin during the warm up, Julius won gold last night, at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. I hope he taps YouTube for sponsorship… Go, Yego!

Computer in a field

eLearning: From the enclosure to the global learning commons

(This article first appeared in eLearn Magazine)

In researching and writing my new book,OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn In The Future, I was constantly having to revise my assessment of the impact of eLearning. I think this is symptomatic of the place that digital learning occupies right now.

When I started on the book, just over two years ago, MOOCs hadn’t arrived. By the time I was on the final draft, some wereComputer in a field
saying they’d flared, and were already fizzling. While I don’t accept that “passing fad” dismissal, the disruption MOOCs were set to bring to higher education, doesn’t seem so great, as embarrassingly low completion rates pour on the MOOCs parade—for the moment.

The bigger dilemma for me, given the focus of my book was this: Where does online learning sit in the formal-informal continuum? You see, the call-to-action in my book is that those who work in formal education are in danger of being left behind by the explosion of informal and social learning. My conclusion is this quiet revolution in informal learning may be facilitated by technology, but it’s being turbo-charged by a set of values, motivations, and actions that we too frequently overlook. And that’s where the secret to compelling, engaging eLearning lies, I believe.

The biggest, disruptive, innovation affecting how we work, live, and play, is something that’s often described as “disintermediation” (cutting out the middle man). But in reality it should be called “digi-mediation” as it replaces the human intermediary with a digital user-fuelled intermediary. So, where we once used a travel agent to book our holidays, we now do it ourselves through TripAdvisor, and a host of booking platforms. Where we used to go down to our local record store to buy a new album, we check out the new band on YouTube, follow them on Twitter, and go to their website to buy directly from them, or even fund their dream to to make the album through Kickstarter. The gap, between producer and consumer, is rapidly shrinking and when it comes to the knowledge industries this has significant implications for job prospects. Knowledge Process Outsourcing will contribute $17BN dollars this year to the Indian economy, thanks to sites like Elance and O-Desk.

While all this was happening, organizational learning was still trying to make the transition from the training room to the Yammer feed. The metaphors I use in the book—”Learning Enclosures” and “Learning Commons”—derive from the battle for land use in England in the 15th -19th centuries. The commoners were gradually hounded out through the desire for landowners to make their farming more profitable. Fences appeared, and the idea of a shared responsibility for the upkeep of vast tracts of the English countryside, became privatized.

Apply that metaphor to the use of knowledge and the shortcomings become obvious. Socially, we’re living in a global learning commons—we share, open ourselves up, freely give away our ideas, and trust others to make use of that knowledge. In formal and corporate learning, however, we’ve been much slower to react. Proctor and Gamble’s Connect + Develop initiative was the most publicized example of a company looking outside its R&D departments and creating a learning commons culture: “Proudly Found Elsewhere” became the new company motto. Connect + Develop grew out of a realization that the rate of innovation needed to survive, but couldn’t be met, even with a global R&D department of 9,000 people. Going beyond the learning enclosure and inviting expertise in, was transformative.

Patrick McKenna is the CEO of Ingenious Media. Based in London, Ingenious Media is an investment and advisory group specializing in media, entertainment, sport, leisure, and clean energy. Their investments—which included the film “Avatar,” the biggest-grossing movie of all time—are based upon the opening-up of knowledge. As Patrick explains, it not only makes good business sense to give their IP away, it’s inevitable:

It’s a bit like the open source software model. We give a lot of our knowledge away, so that people will engage us to deliver some implementation of that knowledge. We tell people everything we know. Some of our original funds were marketed under confidentiality agreements, but the information still found its way out. Confidential information in the marketplace today, is tomorrow’s reading for the rest of the world, so why bother trying to hide it? It’s actually becoming much more open. As time has gone on, we’ve learned to be much more transparent about our thinking.”

 So, the transition to a more open world is inevitable. The challenges, for Chief Learning Officers and classroom teachers alike, is “how do we adapt to the ways people learn when they are doing it for the sheer love of it?” And this is where I come back to the potential of eLearning.

Knowledge is also being disintermediated. We’re still working out how to deal with all of this, but one thing is clear, while the economic value of knowledge has plummeted the social value of knowledge has soared. Let me explain.

The Six ‘Do-Its’ of Social Learning

I’ve identified what I call the six imperatives of social learning. These are values, motivations, and actions that make social learning exciting, and formal learning, well, dull by comparison. The challenge for eLearning is to see how these characteristics can be brought into online learning programs.

Do It Yourself (Autonomy). The desire to take initiative and responsibility in the social space is key to understanding what has made social learning so compelling. We are beginning to realize that we don’t have to wait for those who govern locally or nationally to act on our behalf. There’s a lot we can do for ourselves, and it makes us feel better about ourselves, and others, when we do. It’s where self-determinism meets collaboration, accelerated by social networking tools.

Do It Now (Immediacy). Lillian Katz, a distinguished early childhood educator, highlights the link between immediacy and one of the most contentious labels in formal education: “relevance.” Katz coined the term “horizontal relevance,” to suggest learning is most powerful when the learner acquires a piece of information to solve an immediate problem. This is just-in-time learning. Its opposite, according to Katz, is “vertical relevance,” when the information might be needed at some unspecified point in the future.

Research in neuroscience suggests that every time you post a request on Twitter for a particular reference, or news report you missed, and you get an immediate response, you get a little dopamine hit. It turns out that finding information that provides a quick solution to a problem helps “stamp” the memory in our brain and “attaches motivational importance to otherwise neutral environmental stimuli.” In other words, just-in-time learning is more likely to stick, while just-in-case learning is Teflon-coated.

Do It With Friends (Collegiality). While we may never meet the people we now learn from, it’s wrong to dismiss these relationships is make-believe, or imaginary, friends. My initial perception of Twitter was that it was little more than electronic attention seeking. And, if one were simply to judge it by newspaper regurgitation of celebrity tweets, such prejudices would be confirmed.

My fairly limited personal learning network was transformed, however, once I started using it. And I’m not alone. Millions of workers now consider it an indispensable, if not primary, source of professional development. Fluid learning communities regularly come together for hashtag meet-ups, where issues are debated with no one person able to hog the conversation, due to the now iconic 140-character limit. People learn stuff, but they also share the small talk of friends.

Do Unto Others (Generosity). In Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky highlights the desire we have to do “stuff that matters,” in our spare time, rather than simply consume. Shirky’s argument is that we now have the tools to take collaborative action in the pursuit of doing good.

Marcia Conner, co-author of The New Social Learning, highlights the impact that social media has upon the spirit, and acts, of volunteering: “Social learning thrives in a culture of service and wonder…accelerated when we give our attention to individuals, groups and projects that interest and energize us. We self-select the themes we want to follow and filter out those that feel burdensome, all with impunity.”

In other words, we’re no longer likely to face a knock on the door, asking for help from church or community, to carry out actions, which fail to inspire us. Now, there are now so many projects and causes looking for help that we can surely find ones that we can identify with and commit to with enthusiasm, rather than through a sense of duty.

Doing unto others as we’d have them do to ourselves provides a powerful motivation to learn.

Do It For Fun (Playfulness). Conditioned by years of dreary rote learning, most of us developed low expectations of the pleasure to be found in learning. Yet, this was ever only true for formal education. When we’re with friends or family, there’s simply no point to learning if we don’t enjoy it. Having fun is the primary driver. Does that mean the learning that is taking place is somehow inferior? I don’t think so. Some of the most important life skills we master are achieved only because of the pleasure derived along the way. Learning to swim, or to ride a bicycle, are good examples.

It’s what the MIT professor, Seymour Papert, calls “hard fun“—the potent mix of challenge and enjoyment. Papert’s concept of hard fun arose from the words of an eighth-grader: “A teacher heard one child using these words to describe the computer work: ‘It’s fun. It’s hard. It’s Logo.’ I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard.”

Do It For The World To See (High visibility). The global learning commons allows one insight to be shared among millions. In April 2012, Martha Payne, a nine year-old student from Lochgilphead, Scotland, began blogging about her school dinners, posting a daily photograph of her lunch. Because some of the portion sizes were shockingly small, word soon spread of Martha’s blog, NeverSeconds. Celebrity chef and food campaigner, Jamie Oliver, tweeted Martha’s blog and virality ensued. Six months later, NeverSeconds had reached almost 9 million page views and Martha’s first book had been published, with the proceeds from each book providing a daily meal for 25 children in Malawi.

It’s an extraordinary story, but one which has become rather more commonplace, due to the irrepressible rise of citizen journalism. We’re losing our inhibitions, and discovering that publishing what we think, feel, or know deepens our learning.

eLearning sits at the intersection of the formal and informal. It too often follows in the wake of technological breakthroughs, rather than remembering that tools alone don’t transform—that always comes back to human characteristics. The technology, however, makes it possible for us to re-connect with the powerful emotional triggers for learning: altruism, trust, reciprocity, and a sense of common good.

Designing eLearning, which recognizes the importance of these values and motivations, will secure the future of digital, social, learning within formal context of learning.