ellohay! West Michigan

Hi, I’m Scott, scattered

Posted in organization, physical presence, planning, potential problems, writing by severnspoon on February 20, 2008

I’ve worked in the internet industry in Grand Rapids for ten years now. Before that I was a long time employee of Schuler Books from back in the old days. I’ve been an arts advocate for a long time as well, though I may not have much to show for my efforts but some good memories. Through all that time I have always been concerned with the idea of place and the idea of personal identity.

I’m not an expert, just an empathic poet. I’ve tried very hard to hold true to my principles. I’ve always tried to lead with honesty (to the best of my abilities). I’ve tried to empower local businesses to be competitive in an increasingly global economy. I have built systems that power local businesses top to bottom. This is often at the expense of my other priorities. Here is the way I’ve organized my life:

  1. Love my wife
  2. Make art
  3. Be effective at my job
  4. Encourage others

The internet is great for helping small entrepreneurs reach out to a broad audience that specializes itself to their product offering. Examples of this would be eBay, Etsy, Amazon, etc. You have a creative vision. You make something. You sell it. You might not make a million dollars (that carrot is a fool’s game) but you might make a living if you can find a market.

The internet is also great at creating a playground for a global culture to take it’s first baby steps. Examples: YouTube, blogs, fan fiction. Whatever you are a geek about, you can find a community of people who are also a geek about it.

I’m talking about individuals here. Real people who still hold to the same values that they might have held 100 years ago. As human beings, we are essentially the same critters we were before Freud came along. What has changed for us as individuals is that we are now members of an unprecedented consumerist culture. We buy things as a form of expression. There is a lot that is wrong with that to me. A lot of things have been lost culturally as a result. Among the things the internet is helping us lose is a sense of place and a sense of identity.

So, as an active internet user and worker, I primarily function in a nebulous global context. I use project management tools. I use Google. I use an interface defined by Microsoft or Apple. My voice must find expression through this medium. My thoughts must model themselves based on the best practices of some extremely intelligent thinkers. For me to do my job well, I must think like this machine which is the legacy of all the great minds who have contributed to it.

For me to express myself, I must adapt to available means of expression. To be heard, I must market myself. The inalienable rights of the individual are altered in this environment. My ability to share information with others is limited by cryptic intellectual property rights.  Who I am must mold itself to these constraints.

I often wonder what the new internet user must feel. My neice does Naruto cosplay online. My step-son is a raging fan of innumerable web comics and aspires to create his own. A whole new generation is growing up with the internet in hand. If I had Wikipedea as a child, I would have felt less alone, less confused by my experience I’d like to believe. But I cannot measure what changes it would have precipitated in me. The internet is a liberal arts education. You can set your own pace of learning. It is the ultimate Montessori school. At least, it could be used that way.

I’ve been building websites long enough to have witnessed its historic unfolding. The dot com boom was about business finally embracing the possibilities of this new communication. Businesses built the frameworks that we use now. To play this internet game well is to think about that global audience. It is to be an online business, not a physical presence.

To be an online business is to be a global business. To represent yourself as a digital identity is to have a global identity. These are issues that concern me. During a recent chamber of commerce luncheon with a sales rep from Google, it became readily apparent that what Grand Rapids means to Google is a dense handful of zip codes and a market defined as a radius around an address. 49503 is a better home now than Grand Rapids. I can’t fault Google for this. It is in the business of being big. Microsoft is in the business of being big. It’s a big business.

But say you are a local business. Say you are a local person. Say you are concerned primarily with human interaction. What is the internet for you? MySpace is fun and all, but it is a big business. Facebook does a better job of trying to scope privacy to a human scale, but truthfully, it is a thin veneer on an even broader marketing machine. These systems are ways to reach us as individuals. To engage us deeper in a system of markets. They are commercial endeavours.

So what is the local market online? Well, there are things like Yahoo local, Outside.in, Google local. These are again, big endeavors to more easily reach population segments with targeted advertising. These are sites that subsist on ad revenue. Marketing tools.

As individuals we might use these systems to facilitate communications with a broadening network of old friends and family. I wonder though, when I think of high school friends and old college buddies whether the opportunistic relationships that helped us outgrow each other have run their course. If I still knew everyone I ever knew, I think that would be a traumatic experience. Who I am now is the product of what I’ve been through. I need to move on from some things. The internet is not good at forgetting.

People are growing up in a very different social context than they’ve ever had before. The greatest practical local advantages to the sort of communication tools business has developed are in essential services. Marie-Claire has a great story to tell about a recent Red Cross experience that is a perfect example of this. Police, Fire, Secretary of State, etc. Imagine if all these services were easily accessible online in a non-commercial context. No tax return and no tax refund, because calculations are made correctly the first time. Does it scare you?

Now ask yourself why. Privacy is probably the first hurdle, right? I don’t want the government to know what I’m doing. I don’t want my employer to know what I’m doing. I don’t want my neighbor to know what I am doing. So what are you doing that requires such secrecy? What are you hiding from?

A global identity is disposable. It is a product that you invest time in. It is a facet of your self that can be expressed through whatever interface you choose to work in. What you look like on Facebook is different from what you look like on Amazon. Think about what Google thinks you are.

Now think about Grand Rapids. See the disconnect?

In working on various projects, I keep bumping up against this problem of what local means online. I had conceived of a version of the internet that was local. What if the city had its own intranet. What if this local ‘intranet’ served as the gateway to the broader world. What if we communicated locally first. Say we had something akin to Facebook to represent who we really are. We could vote there. We could educate each other about our local history, our local economy, our dreams and aspirations. We could fall in love. We could police ourselves. We could inform each other about our neighborhoods. Who are we really?

Here are a few key constraints I would place on such a system:

  1. Non commercial
  2. Regulated by the people
  3. Open source
  4. Available to everyone

I’ll go into more detail on this in later posts. I don’t have all the answers. In order to have such a system, it would have to be supported by broad local access. The underpinnings of the system would need to be available to all the citizens and visitors to Grand Rapids. That means local access as essential service. What Marie-Claire is advocating for and trying to initiate has everything to do with building the infrastructure to support a system that could foster local identity. It is the rebirth of the idea of the city as a communications network.

What if bandwidth could be bartered to pay taxes? What if an open wireless network were a tax deductable expense? What if the city managed a proxy server that was the initial point of contact for internet service? What if the city were our ISP?

Remember the Grand Rapids Freenet?

I have a lot of words and ideas to throw at the problem. I have optimism and idealism. I also have no small measure of fear that such a system would be a complete disaster. I have no small measure of fear that our federal government would try to exploit such a system. It’s frightening to me that I even have such thoughts. So how do we define and create such a system in a way that could alleviate such fears?

I keep thinking about all the Wendell Berry I read at the bookstore. He had the idea of strong local agrarian economies as a more evolved model to support the richness of human life. Self sufficient local villages. This has been the American dream of many immigrants. Come to America. Live free in the way that you choose. Man where is that dream now?

I never met Dirk Koenig. I have learned from him all the same. I intend to provoke some of my friends to tell the story of his legacy in Grand Rapids. We’ve had no shortage of dreamers in Grand Rapids. This little crew here is among them I believe. I look forward to seeing if we can take back the internet somehow to support our own ideas of self at a human scale. Not as a target market. Just people.


5 Responses

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  1. forgr said, on February 20, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    So how does one go about starting a framework for a city-wide intranet? Would it be based on a similar model as open source nd collaborative development? Would it use an existing frame work? Has anyone else made a People’s Intranet?

  2. severnspoon said, on February 20, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    I’m curious about 37signals update to Basecamp. It claims to be the rebirth of the intranet. Just that word suggest a convergence of thinking. Truthfully, I think 37signals needs to be consulted on the problem. Or some people need to start reading a lot of books.

  3. forgr said, on February 20, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    Backpack, not Basecamp is boasting the intranet functionality right? Their site mentions all the potential uses for Backpack here: http://www.backpackit.com/

    It’s useful for a company, sharing concepts for clients, or drafts of presentations, but what about a community?

  4. severnspoon said, on February 20, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    So you’d want to be able to organize groups of people on a number of levels: street, neighbourhood, district, etc. And also by other slices. There is no obligation to contribute content, but membership is automatic.

  5. forgr said, on February 21, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    Or is it issue based?

    Transportation, air quality, crime, economy, healthcare, nightlife, events, childcare, politics, parks and recreation, local business, movies, education…

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