James Burke Interview

[via Yuvaraj] I first heard about James Burke from Atanu Dey in the context of his “Connections” series. Then, I bought a book of his – “Twin Tracks”. So, I was quite fascinated to read this interview from Gartner. What is interesting is how Burke connects seemingly unrelated events and weaves them into a story. Writes Gartner as introduction: “James Burke is best-known to millions worldwide as the award-winning creator, producer and host of the three Connections television series. His wit, unique perspective and wealth of knowledge make the series an imaginative combination of education and entertainment as he leads viewers on a dazzling trip through the history of science, technology and social change.” Excerpts from the interview:

In history, the transition to representative democracy was directly driven by the spread of information due to the printing press. It didn’t start in 1215 with Magna Carta which was a private deal between the king and the barons.

Representative democracy emerged because that’s all we could manage with the technology we had at the time. Think about it: lousy roads and no telecommunications meant the best you can do is send a couple of locals to the capital city to speak for all the others.

Today, information technology is making it possible to think differently. People are becoming dissatisfied with the system in which one person represents the complex and different interests of tens of thousands.

What comes next is a product of information technology – direct democracy. One person, one vote. On all issues. Every second of the night and day. Via electronic agents. What democracy was always supposed to be.

Today’s information technology makes the process of change more horizontal and accelerative because networking brings together things and ideas never brought together that way before. And when that happens, change happens: one and one make three.

This is the greatest of today’s challenges. That the process of change is beginning to affect people’s lives in interactive ways that our old social systems were not built to handle – especially in the way we are no longer separated from one another by time and geography.

Burke also talked about his Knowledge Web project:

The Knowledge Web project is a pro bono, volunteer based, free-to-be-used-online teaching and learning tool. At the present stage, it consists of biographies of 2,200 major figures from history linked about 18,000 ways, linked by the way everybody is linked: to friends, to influences, to people they influence, to people the work with, to the people they collaborate with and so on.

And the name of the game is to get learners – in most cases, that’s going to be children – to take journeys through these connected pathways from one person to another, to another and in doing so, to learn about how change happens. How change is anything but linear. How change through history is like a pinball – it bounces around.

The reason I’ve taken this approach is because that’s the way life happens. What I’m also hoping to do is to get kids to recognize, first of all, how what they are learning interacts with its context. And second of all, that their own lives are the same. That what they are learning is not something separate, isolated, different, boring, but part of their own lives.

I’d also like Knowledge Web users to go away and use the technology to build their own webs, to build webs between them and the rest of their schoolmates, between their school and another school, between their state and other states, between their country and others – because online, they can do that now.

And in this way they can see how everything is interconnected, and see that nobody is an isolated, unimportant individual, that everybody contributes. I think that’s probably the most important thing a young person can learn.

Andressen on Open-Source

Marc Andressen succintly captures the magic of open-source:

1. “The Internet is powered by open source.”
2. “The Internet is the carrier for open source.”
3. “The Internet is also the platform through which open source is developed.”
4. “It’s simply going to be more secure than proprietary software.”
5. “Open source benefits from anti-American sentiments.”
6. “Incentives around open source include the respect of one’s peers.”
7. “Open source means standing on the shoulders of giants.”
8. “Servers have always been expensive and proprietary, but Linux runs on Intel.”
9. “Embedded devices are making greater use of open source.”
10. “There are an increasing number of companies developing software that aren’t software companies.”
11. “Companies are increasingly supporting Linux.”
12. “It’s free.”

Open-source software is going to be the platform for the new markets in software.

Energy Web

John Robb recently pointed to an article from Wired (Jul 2001 issue) which outlined an alternate vision for the electrical grid of the future: “Every node in the power network of the future will be awake, responsive, adaptive, price-smart, eco-sensitive, real-time, flexible, humming – and interconnected with everything else.”

The smarter energy network of the future, EPRI believes, will incorporate a diversified pool of resources located closer to the consumer, pumping out low- or zero-emissions power in backyards, driveways, downscaled local power stations, and even in automobiles, while giving electricity users the option to become energy vendors. The front end of this new system will be managed by third-party “virtual utilities,” which will bundle electricity, gas, Internet access, broadband entertainment, and other customized energy services. (This vision is reminiscent of Edison’s original ambition for the industry, which was not to sell lightbulbs, but to create a network of technologies and services that provided illumination.)

Now, the digital networks will be called upon to remake the grid in their own image. By embedding sensors, solid-state controllers, and intelligent agents throughout this new supply chain, the meter and the monthly bill will be swapped out for something more robust, adaptive, interconnected, and alive: a humming, real-time, interactive energy marketplace.

Meeting the energy needs of the next century, the Roadmap’s creators suggest, will require a substantial overhaul in how we think about electricity. The industry’s most basic assumptions will have to be put on the table, including the hub-and-spoke hierarchy of the existing grid – based on huge central power stations with long distance transmission lines radiating outward – which has been the backbone of the business since Edison’s avaricious protg, Samuel Insull, became the first utility tycoon in the 1920s.

“In periods of profound change, the most dangerous thing is to incrementalize yourself into the future,” says Yeager. “Our society is changing more broadly and more rapidly than at any time since Edison’s day. The current power infrastructure is as incompatible with the future as horse trails were to automobiles.”

The impending marriage of the engineering marvel of the late 19th century with one of the most resonant innovations of the late 20th – the distributed network – hasn’t been named yet. In incubators of our energy future like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Bonneville Power Administration, however, researchers are starting to describe the new system with phrases like the intelligent grid, the energy net, and the Energy Web.

Considering the problems we have with power in India, it would be good to see discussion and initiatives on how we can build the next-generation energy platform.

Desktop Wars

USA Today has an AP story which looks at how Google and Yahoo are mounting a challenge to Microsoft on the desktop:

Microsoft faces two rivals Google, the world’s most popular Web surfing vehicle, and Yahoo, the Internet’s most popular destination.

Microsoft’s dominance may seem unassailable, given that its Windows operating system controls all but a small fraction of the world’s personal computers. But as the Internet consumes an increasing amount of people’s computer time, the plumbing provided by Microsoft is becoming less important than the online agenda that increasingly is being set by trailblazing Web companies like Yahoo and Google.

“The Web has created the equivalent of an operating system layered on top of the computer’s operating system,” said John Battelle, a former high-tech magazine publisher who is writing a book on the rise of online search. “There is some question how important that underlying operating system is going to be in the future.”

By establishing their products as essential services on personal computers, Google and Yahoo are vying to become even more ubiquitous as wireless technology proliferates and encourages more people to connect to the Internet wherever they are.

Novell’s Linux Desktop Strategy

News.com writes:

“We’re focusing on building a complete Linux desktop as an alternative to what you’ve been using,” Novell Vice Chairman Chris Stone told Novell loyalists at the company’s BrainShare conference. “We believe that in the next 12 months, we will see the widespread adoption of Linux on the desktop.”

The desktop Linux push will include software from SuSE Linux, the No. 2 Linux seller that Novell acquired in January for $210 million, and Ximian, the Linux desktop specialist that Novell acquired in August.

With the desktop move, Novell plans to turn against Microsoft the same weapon that the Redmond, Wash., software giant used against Novell: a tight coupling between applications that run on the desktop and those that run on the server. Microsoft competed against Novell in part by building technology into Windows desktop machines that could connect easily to Windows servers for tasks such as storing files or tracking a company’s computing assets.

“We think it’s the optimization of what happens between the desktop and the server that creates the value-add for us,” Messman said. “We have been the victim of that.”

TECH TALK: As India Develops: Information Access (Part 2)

The next-generation information platform is the foundation to build vertically specific communities which can exchange information and do ecommerce. This platform will enable users to pool together their individual knowledge and share it with others in the belief that while no one knows everything, together the body of knowledge can be far greater. So far, mass publishing has been rather difficult on the Internet. However, a new set of technologies and tools promise to make this easier, leading to the creation of the two-way web, where every reader is also a potential writer.

This next-generation information platform comprises a series of innovations integrated together into a system which can be easily customised for niche areas. The various elements that make up this platform are:

News: Think of Samachar, Google News and Moreover value-added aggregation of news.

Search: A search engine focused on the content for the vertical is needed, along with Googles AdSense-like targeted and relevant advertising.

Blogs: It should be easy for people to write, and blogs offer a framework to do just that. Blogger and Typepad offer. In addition, analytics like what Technorati and BlogStreet provide can glean additional value from what individuals and groups write.

Wikis: A Wikis easy editing capability allows anyone with a voice to chip in. Think of Wikipedia, an encyclopedia created by individuals from around the Web.

P2P Community: This should be on the lines of Slashdot, which self-organises and allows the good content to rise to the top.

PubSub Backend: RSS is one of the key enablers of the two-way web. As people publish, they also have subscriptions. News Aggregators with a matching engine like PubSub and Feedster can play a powerful behind-the-scenes in helping generate the two-way flow the platform needs.

Microcontent: The platform needs to take into account that access can happen not just on computers but also a range of wireless devices like PDAs and cellphones. For this, content will need to appropriately formatted to deliver smaller chunks.

eCommerce: Whether it is like an Amazon (product sales) or eBay (auctions), there is need to facilitate transactions for the community. A common payments system would also be a needed feature.

Classifieds: Craigs List and Alibaba are good examples of classifieds which can focus on geographical or vertical segments. RSS feeds can ease the task of searching for updates.

Personalisation: Like My Yahoo, it should be possible for users to personalise the platform with the content streams that are of interest to them.

Social Networking: Sites like Friendster and Orkut offer the ability to connect people together. This is especially useful in narrower communities of practice. A platform which can enable people to leverage IM and VoIP like Skype to interact is needed.

Local-Language Support: There is a need for content to be able in multiple Indian languages. An auto-translate feature like Babel for Indian languages is needed.

Visualisation: Video games like Everquest create incredibly rich and interactive environments. A similar interface can create 3-D environments for users to interact with others users.

Tomorrow: Information Access (continued)

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