About Internet and Democracy

democratie-1600x1200_12284161111There’s been quite a few stories lately in the French news about politicians and other “famous” people demanding a regulation of the Internet. There’s been this famous publicist named Jacques Séguéla who called the Internet “the biggest crap ever invented by mankind” (link in French). Then there was Jean-François Copé, head of majority party, who said on TV that we should regulate the Internet in order to preserve politicians and journalists (well, of course he was talking to a journalist). And yesterday, Jacques Myard, one of our elected parliament deputies, wanted to “nationalize the Internet” (here), taking example on… China!

At first, I thought it was just one crazy guy who wanted to get into viral communication, but now I’m starting to see a pattern here. Combine that with the whole net neutrality debate in the US and it becomes really obvious: politicians are starting to be really afraid of the Internet. Now is it really because of those stupid things they say that spread over the web like wildfire? I think this is just the visible part of the iceberg. But as it seems, when someone says something stupid, it only gets crazy on the web if people are already angry with them. If people don’t take you seriously, it won’t go that far.

Which leads me to this question: the Internet is already changing our working environment in a lot of ways, but is it doing the same thing with our political systems? I’m not a French history expert, but if I remember correctly, one of the main triggers of the French revolution and the Enlightenment that got us out of Old Regime is the widespread of education made possible by the invention of the printing press. Now if the Internet has the same potential magnitude as the printing press, how will it affect our democracies?

For example, democracy is all about electing people who vote laws on our behalf, but why do we do that? Because the City is too big, and we cannot be all direct actors in the legislative process… at least not in a world where we have to gather at the same place at the same time to write laws and vote them. But does this constraint still hold with the Internet. Isn’t there a way to build up a more direct democracy again? Wouldn’t the vote of masses compensate for the vast incompetency of our elected guys and their tendency to fall for lobbyists? Maybe that’s what our politicians are really afraid of, that they could be rendered useless by this new system they don’t control or even understand.

Maybe it’s time for us to dust off our constitutions and start thinking about what the Internet could do to improve democracy. And when you see the kind of failure we can expect for the Copenhagen summit, it could even be a real solution to a more global way of dealing with problems, one that would lead to real solutions. And I’m not talking about eDemocracy and other eGovernment stuff here: those are just evolutions, shy intrusions of the Internet in the traditional political debate. I’m talking about what could be the next stage in democracy, without any corrupted or incompetent representative, just the intelligence of the crowd on a global scale.

What do you think? Do you know any politics expert working on such a scenario? Would you like to participate more directly in the decisions that have an influence on your daily life?

Change is Happening, my Friends!

Archaeopteryx_2I know it sounds like an apocalyptic prediction of some sort, but it’s all the contrary. And I’m not talking about politics, or the big-bang-boom-tada-yeah that’s happening right now in a country north from here. I’m talking about our work environment. I’m talking about how the way we solve our problems is already changing. In his very inspiring presentation, Clay Shirky mentioned a transition, that he saw already happening back in 2005, but a transition anyway. The thing is that it takes a visionary to see such a transition while it’s happening because… well… it’s happening. So you’re supposed to be a part of it. Talk about an out-of-body experience (I don’t know the right expression for that in English, sorry).

And this morning, answering a message from my friend and former boss on LinkedIn, I realized that the signs were right here before my very eyes:

  • Organisational: when I was interviewed by Axen, I was seduced by their organisational model, because it was completely original. Pretty flat hierarchy, no “I can’t make that decision, it’s not in my prerogatives” thing, a lot of flexibility and pragmatism, everything is a project and people gather dynamically to implement such projects, they learn a lot, and then they move to something else. Astounding! And it worked… for some time. And now even though THIS instance is being absorbed in the guts of a greedy giant, I know it can work. Or to be more specific, I know that people can work like that. Not everybody, but some people can.
  • Technical: have you noticed how the Internet is everywhere in what we do? Have you noticed how it expands our natural limits to bond and share with one another. Am I worried that I might lose contact with all the wonderful people at Axen when I leave? No! I have them all in my LinkedIn account, I can follow them, see how they’re doing, where they’re going, what they’re working on. And more importantly I have a permanent way to keep in touch with them. And of course there are all the people that I’ve met, worked with, thanks to the Internet. There’s Claes, the guy I’m working with on ConferenceGuide. There are all the contacts I’ve met at DMF in October… and the ones I’ve lost, because I didn’t get their card and couldn’t add them to my contacts (Damn it!)
  • Methodological: this is more specific to the IT field, but still, it shows that minds are shifting thanks to Agile Methodologies. Get back to what really matters: creating value. Let go of your old beliefs that you’re going to keep everything under control and never change your mind. Our business is moving fast, let’s embrace it. Let’s build trust with our teams, encourage everyone to commit, improve our state-of-the-art. And let’s stop saying things like “people are dumb, and lazy, and short-sighted, so we need this control and methodology”. That sounds too much like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And there are probably other aspects that are already changing drastically. I’m not saying they’re changing for everyone. Like any evolutionary process, some specimens are trying it, it increases their chances of survival, others die. It’s like work environment natural selection at… work. Now I’m not a Darwin expert, but I’m wondering whether at some point, seeing that some “features” obviously work better than others, nature doesn’t have a way to push those forward. And even if nature is not capable of this, maybe we are. Maybe now that we are aware of those changes, now that we know they work better, now that we are in times when cards are dealt again, it’s time for us to give a little help to natural selection.

I think those changes are still too shy, they look like an archaeopteryx to me (you know this missing link in evolution, sort of half-dinosaur, half-bird). In other words, all those changes are still happening in what seems more and more like an archaic and unfit environment for solving problems: the company. And here I am, envisioning a work environment full of adhocratic-agile-connected people without the need for a constraining and limiting structure full of overhead and politics. I have a dream! But it’s not over yet…

Knowledge Management: It’s All About Granularity

In my pursuit of the ideal collaboration platform, I’ve tested a few knowledge management systems lately: Knowledge Plaza, Seemy, a combination of del.icio.us and Twitter. And those tests were very interesting because they allowed me to spot the main common problem they all share.

How many times have I heard that the Google Wave presentation is too long, leading people to simply not watch it at all? How many times have my friends complained to me about the length of my own blog posts? The granularity of information on the web is simply too big. The web is all about resources, and there are billions and billions of these resources out there, and what makes it even harder to process and integrate them is that each resource mixes a lot of different information items.

And for me, THIS is the nightmare for my technology watch, and for knowledge management as a whole. You can comment on or share whole web pages through links, whole Youtube videos through embed codes, whole discussions through podcasts. But what if you want to extract what is to you the essential part of a blog post, the funniest moment in a video? Well, let’s say I don’t know any solution for that.

For my everyday technology watch, what I would really need is a knowledge management platform that allows me to select small chunks of information in text, video, audio or images, and then tag those chunks, comment on them, and store them somewhere in the cloud for sharing them with my friends or colleagues, or simply keep them for myself for later reference. All of that while keeping a link to the full original resource of course. That would be awesome!

Now of course because I love to solve problems, my next move is to think about a solution. I don’t know any existing system that does that, so if you do, please tell me about it. Now if it doesn’t exist, we have to invent it. And the way I see it, there are two main aspects to this system.

SandThe first issue is how do we capture excerpts out of web resources. If we want to make it as simple as possible, we need to integrate deeply with a web browser in order to create a natural user experience based on drag-and-drop selection, keyboard shortcuts and so on. This is why I’ve tweeted about me looking for a Firefox extension developer to help me out: I’ve never developed any Firefox extension myself, and I could learn but (a) it would take much time and (b) I’m not fond of Javascript. So once again, if someone out there is a Firefox extension developer and would like to collaborate on this experiment, you are welcome. Let’s try first with text, we’ll see later for other kinds of multimedia content.

And the second issue is how do we store and present all this information in a highly usable and intuitive way, without being too disruptive, without inventing too many new concepts. This part I can handle. I already have a few ideas.

I think before the Internet, there were technology watch departments in companies, whose job consisted in cutting out paper pieces in newspaper, pasting them and composing press reviews with comments and writing reports about what competitors were doing. Nowadays, it’s as if we just gathered full articles or newspaper pages, videotapes, full interview transcripts and just put small post-it notes on them. It’s just too rough, not pre-chewed enough, not efficient enough. And as always, there’s gotta be a better way.

What do you think?