Summary of Cloud Intelligence Symposium

This week I’m trying to put some ending punctuation on all the fragments of projects I’ve left scattered over the past couple months before setting my sights toward new projects for November and December. I received a lot of kind and charitable feedback about my opening presentation at Ars Electronica. But, oddly, feedback about the entire symposium was less enthusiastic. “What is the point of all this talk about The Cloud?” one friend asked. “Weren’t you just talking about all the same old topics that always get discussed at these Web 2.0 conferences?” was the general impression of others. That sort of generalizing really frustrated me because I felt that the speakers did such an excellent job showing just how much the internet has evolved 40 years since its invention. And – so rare for these types of events – they referenced real projects that have led to real social impact. I was especially impressed by the afternoon speakers. In the morning we rambled on an on about “human-machine symbiosis”, “imaginary cosmopolitanism”, “super intelligence”, “neural networks”, blah, blah, blah. But in the afternoon we were pointed to at least 25 case studies of inspirational projects that show how activists are already using the cloud, and offer glimpses of the potential future.

With over a month’s time since the conclusion of the 2009 Ars Electronica Symposium on Cloud Intelligence we can now look back at the day’s discussions – both online and in Linz – and examine what conclusions were reached, and what points of contention remain.

All of the talks and roundtable discussions have been posted on the blog. You can subscribe to the video podcast on iTunes, or via our RSS feed.

Among the questions to which we sought answers:

  • Does cloud computing represent a significant shift in infrastructure, or is it merely the latest fashionable name for the same old internet?
  • What is the intellectual history of collective intelligence, and does cloud computing re-shape our understanding of it?
  • Are cloud technologies forging a global, cosmopolitan society, or are we mistakenly lured into believing that a space without geography must be a space without social boundaries?
  • Does online activism using server-based tools lead to offline social change, or to increased apathy?
  • How are activists using the cloud to influence development, environmentalism, education, creativity and culture?

According to Gartner’s market research, cloud computing was at the summit of the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” when we prepared for the symposium.

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Indeed, several major articles and conferences praising the opportunities and warning about the risks of cloud computing were published and announced in the lead-up to the symposium. And while the boom in augmented reality apps is increasingly taking up a larger patch of real estate in the tech blogosphere, cloud computing remains an important topic; especially with the further related investments by major players like Microsoft, Apple, and Google. An article in The Economist this week claims that “the rise of cloud computing is not just shifting Microsoft’s centre of gravity. It is changing the nature of competition within the computer industry.” Responding to concerns about data portability in the cloud, Google launched The Data Liberation Front, “whose singular goal is to make it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products.” Still, many critics of cloud computing remain unsatisfied, and point to the data loss by T-Mobile’s Sidekick users as evidence of the danger of hosting your data on corporate server farms. “Sidekick Disaster Shows Data’s Not Safe in the Cloud” reads a headline at ABC News, while more thoughtful and thorough tech analysts search to find who and what was responsible for the failure.

What we can be sure of is that the momentum of cloud computing pushes forward even as critics trumpet their warnings louder and louder. “Not everything will move into the cloud,” writes Nicholas Carr, one of cloud computing’s most vocal critics, “but the cloud will move into everything.”

So what can we learn from the discussions that took place at the Cloud Intelligence Symposium? Let’s briefly look at a summary of the various speaker’s main arguments to better understand where there is agreement and difference.

What is Cloud Intelligence?

I began the day with an introduction to the concept of “cloud intelligence.” (The last thing I wanted to do was apply a new term for an old theory – that is, collective intelligence in the age of cloud computing – but what is an art festival symposium without a neologism?) I argued that we are entering the third stage of computing after the mainstream and then personal computer; that cloud-based tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s many products, have had a large impact on society, and that the impact will continue to grow as cloud computing matures and internet connectivity expands. Finally, I argued that a social symbiosis between humans and computers is strengthening as cloud-based computer programs (including Google’s search) rely on human intelligence, and humans rely on cloud-based programs to function in an increasingly fast-pased, information-saturated world.

Stephen Downes then followed, adding a layer of depth and complexity to the metaphor that internet users are like social neurons of a global brain. Downes warns that this metaphor treats each neuron as identical; the internet as a network of sameness. In fact, both the brain and the internet depend on a diversity of inputs and outputs. Each neuron is connected to a different network from every other neuron, even if collectively they all belong to one, larger network. “A city is not a group of people directed to create one goal,” says Downes, “but each seeking their own goals.” As Ethan Zuckerman puts it in his summary of Downes’ talk:

What we need to understand about the cloud is that each entity works based on its own internal needs and drives. In a cloud, there’s an equality of opportunity, the ability for each entity or neuron to connect to the network as a whole. What we’re going to see is a diversity of perspectives, not a shared understanding. But through the interdependence of entities, we expect interaction, truth and knowledge to be emergent properties of this network.

Ethan Zuckerman then takes the stage and builds on Downes’ emphasis that connectivity, participation, and social capital are not distributed evenly across the network. He points to the Kremvax Hoax from 1984 as an early indicator that the seeming intimacy of the internet can easily convince us that we are in fact more globally connected than we really are.

Usenet gave users a very real experience of a larger, more connected world. It made it possible to imagine a world one step more connected, where a online space would permit encounters between cold war rivals. It made it possible to imagine a form of cosmopolitanism not yet present in the physical world.

But, in reality, imagination was all that the users were left with. They weren’t actually in direct conversation with their Soviet peers (though that did happen two years earlier via satellite connection). Zuckerman fears that this same tendency – to imagine global interaction rather than practice it – still holds true today, surrounded as we are by countless communication tools that in theory can put us in touch with cellphone-toting Tibetan monks, but in practice never do.

I fear that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll discover that the flow of ideas through the Cloud isn’t as frictionless and global as we might hope. The steep, sheer barriers of language render much of what’s posted online incomprehensible to us, the Chinese blog posts and the Spanish-language videos. On a polyglot internet, there’s more to read everyday, but less each of us, individually can understand.

Next up is Anders Sandberg from the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University. Sandberg begins by observing that, collectively, Austria has around 821,000,000 IQ points, but that most contemporary research ignores the potential of group cognition and rather focuses on business-related scenarios of how relatively small teams complete particular tasks. For Sandberg, increased communication is key to increasing intelligence. “The best cognitive drug gives you a 20% advantage on certain tests,” he says, “but asking a set of your friends to help you out might make you much better.” Communication is also key in preserving both culture and new technologies. Sandberg suggests that Tasmanians lost key technologies around 1500 B.C. simply because not enough people knew about them. People tend to imitate rather than innovate, and through innovation new technologies and techniques spread across society. This is happening faster today than ever before via the blogosphere, Wikipedia, and other online communication networks. Finally, Sandberg observes that “information can substitute for smarts,” and points to 80 Million Tiny Images as an example of how information produced by humans (in this case photos) can help train computers to see.

How to Turn Intelligence into Action?

With an introduction to the basic idea of “cloud intelligence” – and its shortcomings – in place, Isaac Mao asks how aggregated intelligence is being employed to improve offline society. He stresses the importance of connecting concept and vision with action and implementation.

Isaac introduces Hamid Tehrani, the Persian Language Editor for Global Voices and a frequent commentator on the Iranian blogosphere. Tehrani examines the myths and realities of the impact of social media tools on the recent post-election Iranian protests. He believes that the Iranian protests proved the power of citizen media, with many people risking their lives to post videos and messages to the internet, but that the use of these tools was often misunderstood by the mainstream media. As early as 2006 Iranians were using blogs to coordinate and publicize protests. YouTube videos stirred major protests over a sexual harassment scandal at Zanjan University and corruption charges against senior ayatollahs.

Iran has a long history of web censorship, but election candidates grew reliant on social media during their campaigns and so, Tehrani believes, the Iranian government stopped blocking access to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube three months before voters went to the polls. Social media played an important role in 1.) keeping protesters informed and 2.) creating a two-way bridge of communication between Iranian citizens and the outside world. Tehrani criticizes western media for its over-emphasis on technology and its under-emphasis on the Iranian people. He points to headlines like “tweeting the revolution”, “the tweeted revolution”, and “a Nobel Peace Prize for Twitter?” as examples of misguided western coverage. In fact, he argues, Twitter was not used to organize demonstrations and often caused misinformation, as in the case when one tweeting protester claimed that 700,000 people were at a rally when in fact there were less than 5,000. He concludes by noting that westerners tend to think of the Iranian blogosphere as a face of reformist progressivism when in fact the conservative blogging community is both substantial and expanding.

Xiao Qiang, the founder and chief editor of China Digital Times explores how Chinese dissidents are using cloud-based tools to challenge their government’s legitimacy. He begins by noting that his emphasis is less on technology and more about “the human experience.” He points to memes of resistance that are spreading across China’s growing network of cell phones, blogs, and portals. The “River Crab” phenomenon – and, more recently, the Song of the Grass Mud Horse – show the growing Chinese awakening to the fact that, as Qiang puts it, “censorship is a form of violence against the human spirit.” He ends by pointing to Chinese artist and blogger Ai Weiwei’s attempts to uncover the names of the thousands of students who were killed by poorly constructed buildings in last year’s Sichuan earthquake. Ai Weiwei was beaten by police so badly in August that he needed brain surgery, which he is now recovering from in Germany. The power of using online tools to make information public, Qiang notes, is leading Chinese authorities to react in ways that may ultimately harm their reputation, control, and power.

Evgeny Morozov then joins the discussion via Skype to challenge the premise that increased communication and the sharing of information leads to either democratization or effective political activism. “As someone who studies how the Internet affects global politics,” he begins, “I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of numerous digital activism campaigns that attempt to change the world through Facebook and Twitter.” Morozov tells the anecdote of an experiment by Danish psychologist Anders Colding-Jørgensen to see how far and how quickly false information is spread on Twitter. He sees online activism campaigns, such as coloring one’s Twitter avatar green in support of Iranian protesters, acts of slacktivism, “where our digital effort make us feel very useful and important but have zero social impact.” He cites Max Ringelmann’s “social loafing” theory to explain “why a million people working together may be less effective than one person working alone.” Morozov concludes by offering three tips to campaign organizers to avoid slacktivism: 1) don’t merit accomplishment until activists have really proved their worth; 2) create diverse, distinctive, and non-trivial tasks; and 3) don’t rely too heavily on the Wikipedia model of crowdsourcing.

Case Studies: Food, Development, Education, Creativity, and Environmentalism

We saw a healthy range of opinions regarding whether or not cloud-based tools lead to effective offline activism and social progress, or simply distract us while authoritarian powers retain their control. In the afternoon a line-up of dedicated and tech-savvy activists demonstrated how they and their peers are using the cloud to shape how we engage with our food, the classroom, home countries, creativity, and environmentalism.

The first half of the day featured mostly academics and researchers who are observing macro changes from the desks of their university offices. The second half of the day put us in direct communication with those who are out in the field implementing new technologies and practices.

Before lunch Kristen Taylor announced a “food hacking” competition similar to the most excellent fast food hacks at FancyFastFood.com. Christian Stiebitzhofer collected the most votes with his “CloudWurst“:

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Following lunch Taylor takes to the podium and, in one of the most memorable quotes of the day, confesses that she is a food pornographer. She quotes Renato Sardo from a July New York Times article on urban homesteading:

“We’ve become so disconnected from everything,” said Sardo, who is 40 and who has been busy finding tenants for the 70,000 square feet of food retail space in the nearby Jack London Market. “We need to reconnect with something, some material. And food is the thing you do most.”

Taylor references Clay Shirky’s idea that the internet is built on love, but she points out that food online is mostly associated with lust. She wants to examine the social future of food. How does the culture of cooking and caring about food spread across the cloud? The idea of co-operation, after all, has existed in food for a long time; think about food co-ops.

For Taylor, honey bees are a model to think about the future of social food. Honey bee populations worldwide are currently in decline because of what some researchers have dubbed “colony collapse disorder.” Though there is some debate about (and a $1.5 million prize to prove) the reason for the decline in honeybees, Taylor points to one popular explanation, which is that local breeds of honey bees are exported en masse to other countries rather than being raised locally.

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She shows a picture of an abandoned bee hive and notes that we see the same trend in online communities – the sense of cooperation and the process of co-production die out as our limited attention is distributed across more and more networks and communities. Among the online communities that she sees as important nodes in the network of food creativity are TasteSpotting, Yes, We Can Food, and Fallen Fruit. She ends with a photo of layered cake and asks us to think about the petabytes of information which are being stored on server farms as layers of ourselves. But what is the use of all of that information that we are archiving, she asks, if it doesn’t lead to action?

Next up is Teddy Ruge, a Ugandan-born photographer and activist now living in Texas, and the co-founder of Project Diaspora, which aims to mobilize the African diaspora in the social, economic, and cultural development of the African continent. Ruge says that Project Diaspora’s specific focus is to use new communication technologies to make more effective the $40 billion in remittances sent to Africa each year by its diaspora living all around the world. He believes that rather than being sent to individuals or families, remittances should be used for community-based development, such as Project Diaspora’s own “Women of Kireka” project.

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Residents of Kireka, Uganda

Ruge already sees early signs of the effectiveness of new media in giving a voice to the African diaspora. Dambisa Moyo became the first African-born critic of aid-based development to be taken seriously in the international community largely, Ruge argues, because of her mastery of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Today the African diaspora stays in closer communication with their homeland than ever before because of their active involvement in MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter. Ruge says that he uses Twitter more than any other tool to communicate and coordinate with fellow activists across the African diaspora.

In April of this year Ruge wrote a highly cited post about Ashton Kutcher’s “burst of insecurity” in which he challenged CNN to a race to a million followers. The winner was to buy 10,000 malaria nets for Africans. For Ruge, Kutcher’s media gimmick was representative of the frequent “paternalism in which the western media uses the plight of Africa to further their own agenda.”

Wouldn’t it be better to invest money into indigenous companies that can make the nets, therefore maintaining a sustainable business selling bed nets? Or investing in the agricultural sector so farmers are more able to meet demand for crops like Artemesia annua and pyrethrum, easily-grown botanical ingredients in anti-malarial drugs?

Ruge thought he would just be ranting to a small readership, but his message spread far and wide and Malaria No More ended up responding on their own blog. Previously, an everyday member of the African diaspora would have not had so much influence, he notes. Ruge ends his presentation with the sobering reminder that there are over 900 million people in Africa, but only 65 million are online. The good news is that eventually all Africans will be able to lend their voice to the cloud. Connectivity has expanded exponentially in the past year in Africa, but how will this connectivity be used? For upload or download? For active participation or passive consumption?

Pablo Flores, a professor of engineering at Uruguay’s University of the Republic, then takes the stage. Flores has been involved in Plan Ceibal, the OLPC project in Uruguay, since the very beginning and he wants to look at how Uruguayan children are connecting to the cloud with their lime green laptops to transform education. Plan Ceibal has just delivered the last of their laptops to all 362,000 pupils and 18,000 teachers in Uruguay. In order for students to participate effectively online Flores says that all children require 1) health, nutrition, shelter; 2) literacy, a functioning home life and educational system; and 3) access to devices and internet access. Plan Ceibal has been able to more or less successfully provide the third element, but there are many other development challenges in Uruguay that still demand attention.

Even once those basic needs are met, Flores notes that there are three other cultural obstacles to creating an ecosystem of pro-active online participation. First, citizens must understand the utility of the devices. Flores and his team did research in Uruguay which found that parents who were not aware of how they could specifically benefit from the laptops would leave them closed and unused an a bookshelf. Once they were shown the basic utility of the laptops, they invested more time to learn how to better use them. Second, in a society that is accustomed to passively listening to leaders, it can be difficult to encourage a culture of sharing knowledge. Technology also lends power to those who are most easily able to master it, which can lead to awkward power struggles between teachers and students. Finally, Flores says he feels it is important to resist against what he calls “block boxes”, technological tools that function, but without letting us understand how they function. This is why Plan Ceibal advocates open source technology, and why a team of volunteer programmers are developing open source applications to meet the local needs of Uruguayan students, teachers, and parents. University students from Montevideo have formed “Flor de Ceibo” to give workshops across the country about the technical features of the laptops, but also about the culture of sharing which the internet enables. Apparently they have already had some success: Flores ends his talk by pointing to a classroom of young Uruguayan students who are using blogs to learn about Brazilian culture and to improve their Portuguese by communicating directly with a classroom of Brazilian students.

Andrés Monroy-Hernández is a PhD student and Bradesco Fellow at the MIT Media Lab. He shares Flores’ belief in the importance of playing and tinkering with open systems. Since he arrived to MIT Monroy-Hernández has been working on Scratch, a programming environment that enables young students to easily code simple programs for their computers. Specifically he has been responsible for the development of the Scratch online community, which enables young people to share, re-mix, and build on the programs they create. There are now there are 320,000 registered members – most between 12 and 14 – who’ve posted 500,000 programs and 12 million scripts. Unlike most programming environments, Scratch allows its users to work and collaborate in their own native language. He shows the same sample program in both Chinese and Spanish. This cross-language collaboration means that even if youth don’t speak the same language, they can still work together on the same program.

Monroy-Hernández wanted Scratch to be more social and more fun. He walks the audience through the online community, which he envisioned as a “YouTube for Scratch projects.” One of the half million programs that has been shared on Scratch is “Obama v. McCain” in which “whiteblur” grabbed images from the web and created a fun game where users can play either as Obama or McCain. I tried my hand as Obama, but McCain beat me 10-9.

While Scratch has clear educational applications and benefits, most users are homeschool students, or students who play after school on their own. We are shown a map of site visits from Google Analytics which shows that most users come from the United States and Europe, but that there is also considerable usage in South America, South Asia, and East Asia. Defying all stereotypes about programming and internet usage in general, there are more female registered users than male. (54% compared to 46%).

Monroy-Hernández concludes by pointing to a real world impact of the Scratch community. Gray Bear Productions is a software company founded by three scratch programmers who at the time were eight, thirteen, and fifteen years old. They now have 18 members who live in different time zones and have collectively designed six games in just three months. For Monroy-Hernández, Scratch shows the potential of democratizing the cloud so that all users are able to build tools to suit their own purposes.

Juliana Rotich, a Kenyan blogger and environmentalist, ends the afternoon of case studies by looking at how African activists are using “the cloud as a hub for environmental change.” While most North Americans learn about environmental degradation on the news, she says, for Africans it is right in front of their eyes. As Ethan Zuckerman writes in his useful summary of her talk:

She shows us photos of the Mau Forest in Kenya. The forest has historically acted as a “water tower” for a large region of Kenya, where condensation of moisture around trees has led to increased rainfall and expanded water supplies. But the destruction of thousands of acres of forest is leading to Lake Elementita drying up. Droughts in Kenya are becoming so severe that pastoralists are bringing their cows into cities, seeking water. There are now traffic jams in Nairobi from cows crossing the street. She shows us photos of cyclones in Madagascar and the impact of air pollution in African cities.

When the mainstream international media cover African countries, they rarely focus on environmental issues. Fortunately, environmental activists on the ground in Africa are beginning to use new media themselves to spread awareness and coordinate action. Rotich cites Corneille Ewango, a former poacher, turned conservationist, as an example. In Uganda conservationists used text messages and blogs to stop a major development project planned at Mabira Forest. In Egypt blogger and activist Tamer Mabrook published photos of “Trust Chemical Industries” polluting Lake Manzala. (The company was later acquired by the Indian-owned Sanmar group, which likely cleaned up their practices, but first Mabrook was sued by the original company and forced to pay around $7,000 in fines.) In South Africa Urban Sprout is pointing tourists who come to the country for next year’s World Cup to environmentally sustainable businesses. In Kenya Friends of the Lembus Forest are organizing outreach activities to stop destruction and restoring the Lembus Forest.

Looking toward the future of cloud-based environmental activism in Africa, Rotich points to the maps from CarbonSmart and envisions a mobile phone-accessible system which integrates microlending, emissions trading, and tree planting so that, as Zuckerman writes, those who are most affected by environmental change are able to participate in market-based solutions to mitigate the destructive impact.

Finally, Isaac Mao takes to the podium again to conclude the day and look to the future of cloud intelligence. He emphasized that cloud technologies have also changed how the Ars Electronica symposium is organized. In addition to the speakers and audience, participants from around the world also added to the content and diversity of the discussion. For Isaac, the idea of “cloud intelligence” unites the fields of art, science, sociology, and activism by bridging the gaps between them. He considers what a symposium on cloud intelligence will look like ten years from now. Only time will tell – the cloud is still young, and is advancing faster than even the most attentive tech bloggers are able to keep up with. Isaac also points to a lack of sustainable business models, and poor filtering technologies to avoid information overload as obstacles and opportunities for all of us who participate in the cloud

Forty years after the invention of the Internet, and 20 years since the dawn of the World Wide Web, this year’s symposium offered a helpful survey of how the world’s largest network, the Internet, has evolved and what impact on global society it has had. We thank all of the day’s speakers and participants – both in Linz and in the cloud – for their help composing a one-day snapshot of where we have come to, of what we must overcome, and where we might be heading.

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