I've noticed a few references to the Internet of Things recently, a phrase I haven't heard for about two years (Nicolas Nova notes its reappearance, in concept if not in name, here) and to Smart Cities, about which the Guardian weirdly had a pull-out advertising supplement a few weeks ago. I'm glad these ideas are back, just for fun if nothing else, because I like both of them.
In between this time around and the last time around though I've done a bit of work with a neighbourhood police team, and one of the things that experience made me think was that if you wanted a working example of a real-time sensor-enabled city-wide "smart city" system then 999 calls in a city full of people with mobile phones is it.
Think about it: you've got a very widely distributed sensor network, that's us with our eyes, ears and bodily presences which might be under threat, and that sensor network is being monitored in real time - we can ring 999 from anywhere because we have mobiles - and the alert from the sensor (us and our phones) triggers a response - flashing blue lights - that aims to restore the system to its balanced state.
And it's this restoring the system to a balanced state which is by far the most important and illustrative part.
The balanced state is a state in which no laws are being broken.
And what are these laws? They are the rule sets for how we live together. And they are technologies.
I'm not saying we have the right laws, or even that we need “the law” to live together, but we do need rule sets, many of which we act on without even knowing just from the look on someone else's face. I might also be misinterpreting (wilfully or through dumbness) Paul Romer's Long Now talk by saying he says rule sets are a kind of technology, but it's a useful idea, so if he didn't he should've.
And this technology for living together doesn't just fall out of the sky, even if it might as well do, for all the say most of us have designing it. We have to choose what laws we want, what balanced state we want the system to be in (though if you read about autopoiesis that idea of choice isn't quite so clear!). And it is the rules for making and enacting those choices, the rule sets for making rule sets, for governance, the rule sets that are the constitutions by which we make decisions about how we want to live together, which are the real smart city technologies.
A city isn't smart because it produces lots of data. Or even opens up that data to lots of developers. It's smart because it continually monitors itself and uses that feedback to maintain the state it wants to be in. It's worth remembering that the word “cyber” doesn't mean having metal arms, it means to steer. Cybernetics is the study of how to steer systems.
So what state do we want the system to return to and how do we steer it? What do we want our technologies of governance to give us? Wealth? Happiness? Innovation? Fairness? Long life? Environmental sustainability?
I don't know. You decide. Pick the ones you want. Then when we have deliberated, agreed and built those technologies - the constitutions and laws - we set up our sensor networks (made up of all sorts of technology - you can have a smart city without any rifd chips or data visualisations of real-time traffic updates whatsoever, just look at ancient Athens) to monitor the system and give us feedback so that we can adjust our smart city technologies - the rule sets of governance and the laws that are enacted - to give us more of what we want and less of what we don't. Or we can decide we want something else in which case we design new governance technology and enact new laws.
And it's these technologies that are most desperately in need of innovation. Because at the moment they are awful.
At the moment, how does the system of Great Britain, for example, decide what counts as the state it wants to return to?
Every five years or so around 40% of the people in the arbitrary and outdated unit of organisation called "Britain"* who can be bothered to vote, people who are quite possibly mostly living hundreds of miles away from most of the other 60%, get a poll result that is roughly what they hoped for without really caring all that much either way, and a simple majority from a group of around 600 men and women out of a total of 60 million - whose job is now to design technology (rules sets, laws) for the whole arbitrary unit but who really all owe their allegiance to only one city (usually London regardless of whether they are meant to be designing technology to benefit the people of, say, Sedgefield) - then tell all the other cities (systems) what counts as the right state for their system and how to achieve it for the next five years or so before the next poll which might or might not lead to the reversal some of the previous rule sets.
And that is a very dumb way to run a system.
And it is the dumbness of the technology that makes me a little bit suspicious about the re appearance of smart cities (were they called smart cities last time, when it was that place in Korea? Maybe it was Ubicities?).
Is it just a way for big, multinational technology companies to fleece the dumb city?
Is it a way that by doing a bit of wining and dining of a few of the 600 people who at the time are designing the governance technologies, they can be persuaded to enact some laws to outsource, to these same big technology companies, something or other that we didn't even know we needed, in the same way in every city/system no matter how different, for dozens of years, because it's more "efficient". And call it "smart cities"?
I don't know, but it's worth looking at the names of the companies paying for the pull out newspaper advertising supplements.
This is a little bit like Adam Greenfield's argument in his book Everyware - this stuff is coming so we better debate it now while we've still got chance to decide what we want it to be like, because otherwise it will be decided for us.
But debating "advancing and emerging digital technologies", as they did at this seminar in Manchester organised by consultants, is debating the wrong kind of technology.
What we should be debating, and more importantly innovating with, is our governance technologies, the ways in which we decide the kinds of systems/cities we want to live in and the civic rule sets from which those systems/cities will emerge. If we do that, the rfid chips will look after themselves.
And the people who should be debating and designing the technologies for their smart cities are the people who live in them. And they should be able to to debate and design, as often as they want, everything. Every. Single. Thing. Because you don't get any meaningful innovation, enterprise, responsibility, energy, commitment, problem solving, or engagement if you don't have the power to do things and the risk of failure when you do.
And all sorts of people think it would be a good idea to innovate with governance technologies: Paul Romer, these bonkers Americans who want to live under the sea, the writer of this essay on local economics and places, and even this bonkers government minister saying we should have "home rule for cities".
Because compared to governance technology, having a wheelie bin that gives me whuffie points when I put some tin cans in the recycling, or a mobile phone that tells me where the traffic jams are, or even a smart electricity grid, couldn't be more trivial**.
* (if you don't think it is arbitrary why does the governance technology change just above Newcastle? The boundary for any system on the land mass of the UK is either the whole lot bounded by the sea or its constituent city-regions, not a line drawn two thirds of the way up.)
** As John Tolva, who is the director of “Citizenship and Technology” at well known philanthropic organisation IBM said at a city camp event the other day “burying the sensors in the pavement, that is easy”.
We've woken up with a whole new political rule set, and everything from now on is going to be lots of fun.
The rules of politics in the age of coalitions are about listening, negotiating, collaborating and coming up with unexpected solutions.
But most of all the new rules are about shifting alliances.
Everything is always to play for.
And in our day and age, "everything to play for" is the best and most beautiful state to be in.
Everything is fluid, uncertain, changeable, unexpected, chaotic and complex. Any state we are in from now on is always just another state waiting to be born.
From this morning onwards all sorts of wonderfulness from science and economics and even maths have come into play. Ideas about self organising systems, game theory, evolutionary biology, autopoiesis, complexity science and systems thinking, all of which I can't even pretend to properly understand, are suddenly our guiding principles.
And one of the things these ideas reveal is that small actions can have big effects, which is great if we don't want to wait around for the over-networked posh idiots to sort the world out for us. Things that we can all do in structures outside of party politics matter. In complex non-linear systems the small things have unexpected consequences, it's a mathematical fact!
There are lots of big challenges of course, but that is great because you can't have a decent story or a decent game without risk of failure.
And best of all is that this new rule set is perfect for, and demands, creativity. Political systems become a subject for creativity.
I read a smshing definition of creativity in neuroscience the other day: "creativity as the ability to restructure one’s understanding of a situation in a nonobvious way. "
And if nothing else, what was sadly sadly missing over the last 13 years was anyone ever doing anything "non obvious". They made an obsession of finding out the obvious and doing it. No one ever, ever, took a step back and looked at the system as a whole and said "ok what is really going on and how can we really change it?"
For all the battered nobility of his last few days, all Brown ever wanted to do was sit in the centre and command the world to change based on the force of his will and his absolute understanding, and his chosen mechanism for doing so was to throw tax revenues at it skimmed from the City.
But the world just doens't obey that command any more, if it ever did.
So here is a policy to test out in breaking up the current coalition:
Local income tax.
It's a Lib Dem policy I think anyway. The Cameron wing of the Conservatives would have to pretend to be in favour given how much they have gone on about localism, but the devolutionary implications would be too much for the right. If it passes then the control of revenues and the autonomy that goes with it will allow Labour to build up the independence of its English regional strongholds and push for greater freedom from London regardless of which coalition is in power there. And a hundred city states all experimenting with the rule sets of government is million times more creative.
God knows whether that would work or not in any way.
But that's not the point. The point is the process. Release early release often. Prototype. Beta test. Declare a republic in Sunderland and see what happens.
That is the world we are in now, and it is miles better than the old one, regardless of who it is that thinks they are in power.
A great essay about creativity and experimentation in political rule sets here.
A useful primer about systems thinking here.
A bonkers and almost mystical introduction to autopoiesis here.
We make sense of our lives by telling ourselves life stories.
If we learn good storytelling skills, we can rely on them when we have to face up to, and get beyond, the things that happen to everyone every so often in life that, quite properly, make us unhappy for a while.
Having this mature, practised storytelling skill is part of what makes us grown ups (at the final stage of "ego development") and is how we create and preserve our eudaimonic well-being, the belief that life is meaningful and worthwhile. [Narrative Identity and Eudaimonic Well-Being - Bauer, McAdams and Pals]
If storytelling is something everyone has to learn in order to be happy, then the value of participatory media is clear.
You only need to read Secret Tweet or One Sentence for a few days to recognise that it is people rehearsing difficult chapters in their lives, trying them out as a story. And also just trying out storytelling - not everything on One Sentence is about difficult moments by any means.
This storytelling practise doesn't even have to happen in places that have been designed for publishing. What else is World of Warcraft, for example, if it's not a training ground for practising narratives.
But the storytelling we have to do isn't just about the process. Doing it, in itself, isn't enough to create eudaimonic well-being.
It has to be a good story. And good is an objective measure of literary quality. Badly written life stories won't help as much.
A couple of years ago I did some work with psychologists who were interested in rumination - the unhelpful dwelling on ourselves and the past that we do when depressed rather than just bog-standard unhappy. The psychologists found that depressed people tended to remember in abstract, unspecific terms - "I'm always making mistakes, that's why I'm a failure." rather than using real, concrete details - "Getting drunk and photocopying my arse at the Christmas party wasn't the best way to get promoted."
What sparked my interest straight away was that it sounded almost exactly like judgements about good and bad writing.
The difference between good and bad poetry, for example, is pretty much down to two things: firstly using abstractions and generalisations instead of concrete descriptions; and secondly not being careful with words as things - all words bring tones of voice and echoes with them, and these have to be handled.
So the first rule of writing a good life story is be concrete not abstract: what really happened? What are the details only a witness would know? (If you want to practise try this. You'll find it's a lot harder than it sounds, but you'll be a better writer for it.)
The second rule is that there are already a lot of stories out there.
Bauer and his colleagues looked at a lot of life stories reported by Americans and found that they were, in a nutshell, very Hollywood. The Hero (in this case the person telling their own story), is a rugged, self-reliant individual, and uses their own god-given resources to overcome obstacles outside of themselves, in order to triumph in the end, and ride off into the sunset. Growth and progress are important narrative structures for life stories (the folk wisdom for this would be "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger"), but Bauer points out that this is a very culturally specific template, modelled on the cultural products of one society, and might not suit other parts of the world, even though those products are exported everywhere.
And if the people with the power to control mainstream stories give them all the same worldview, a worldview that says powerful people got there because they earned it, then those might not always be helpful models for the rest of us. What if our rugged individualism and god-given resources don't triumph? Trying to hammer our life stories into the shape given by the X Factor, for example, might not lead to eudaimonic well-being. We can't all be Susan Boyle after all.
So the third rule of life-storytelling might be "There Can't Always Be a Happy Ending".
A book that reads "Once upon a time we all knew it was going to be all right in the end." isn't going to be much of a page turner. To feel eudaimonic well-being we need a sense of narrative structure, not just a personal history. And narratives need an uncertain future that the reader thinks forward into - "The hero is hanging from a cliff edge on Mars by her fingertips! When I tune in next week will she be rescued by the space-eagles or fall to her death on the rocks below?!"
This is why even though religious conviction is strongly predictive of happiness, I don't think religious life stories are well written: "Once upon a time God said it was going to be all right in the end. The End. For ever and ever amen."
Eudaimonic well-being can and does survive bad, unfair and meaningless things happening, and in a way, without the possibility of these events it can't exist - life is just blissed out hedonic happiness. What we do at these moments is rewrite our life story to accommodate the bad thing in the narrative, often as the value of understanding about ourselves and the world that we wouldn't have had otherwise.
But the danger is that there might be some events that are so overwhelming that we won't have enough storytelling resources to form a story from them, or that no one could have. The space-eagles might not arrive in real life.
It's this danger that drives our learning and practising of stories - reading a book, going to the pictures, hearing a joke, playing World of Warcraft - and it must have an evolutionary force behind it.
But some people, through no fault of their own, are more at risk of meeting overwhelming events, or meeting them more often, or finally running out of resources and resilience, than others. In some kinds of story that might be called bad luck, but more often it is to do with how we all, between us, choose to organise our world to the advantage of some of us and not others.
Fate makes everyone's life a page turner, but we have a responsibility to make sure we all have a fair chance to tell a good story to ourselves.