Thursday, October 22, 2009

Modern Sins

Yesterday noticed that the Forum parking hall in downtown Helsinki tries to be "green". On a sign it said that they compensate for the CO2 generated to get your car there (based upon average distances driven, etc.). On the (Finnish) website the hall also claims to exclusively use hydro-electricity and compensate for (the coal-fired) city heating used. Of course these measures are to be applauded and I surely hope drivers will prefer this parking hall over others.

At the same time these kind of measures remind me of medieval catholic indulgence practices. I think it's about time for a true green reformation.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The learning society didn't really take off

Yesterday's Aalto lecture titled (my translation): "A Learning Society ? Knowledge Society and Learning" reminded me of a balloon: a colourful ultra-thin skin filled with hot air, that took us to quite some height. However in the absence of a clear wind direction one doesn't get very far.
Prof. Teemu Leinonen (Media Lab) is to be applauded for an exceptionally interactive lecture (by Finnish and TKK standards), but I feel that a number of opportunities were missed; importantly he (or the audience!) failed to raise or address a number of crucial questions. Teemu challenged all in the audience to blog and comment the lecture so....

First of all I would really have wanted a clearer agenda for the lecture itself; or an attempt to arrive at some research agenda. Now it wasn't clear:
  • if a learning society is something to strive for. I sensed that Teemu and the public feel that the answer is yes, but I'd like to see some good justification for this goal, even though I do not disagree.
  • that a learning society is emerging irrespective of the wish of "the people". This is another, and not contradictory, view of the topic. If one holds this view it makes sense to study (in a bit of anthropological fashion) the phenomenon and analyse how we can deal with both the opportunities as well as the threats of it.
  • what problems need to be solved on the road to a learning society. I.e. view the construction of a learning society as an engineering problem. That seems to have been another view, and apparently in-line with Teemu's own research work, but then: which are those issues that need to be solved, which should be solved by engineering (technology), and which by society measures (law, regulation, business models)?
So although the lecture was interesting and thought-provoking it failed to be the enthusiastic call for rolling up our sleeves and do something that I was expecting. Last week's lecture on "The future of energy technology" by Prof. Peter Lund was great in that respect.
Let's explore the topic a bit more from the aforementioned different points of view and see if we can seduce Teemu or others into coming up with a truly interesting call for action: to join research, put up barricades on the streets, or something else.

Although Teemu made some attempt(s) to define a Learning Society it remained a bit unclear which entities are actually learning something. All the people in the society ? Or just the participants or users of a particular social network ? Organisations such as enterprises, schools, governments ? Or society itself at large? Modern internet/web technology makes it fairly easy for many, many people to obtain, discuss and augment information. And, to a perhaps lesser degree, knowledge. I think that what is new here is the possibility for vast numbers of people to do this, and in a timely fashion.
One could argue that until very recently a lot of information and knowledge was consumed, discussed and augmented by scientists, through scientific journals and conferences. For those scientist and for science Web 2.0 does not encompass a completely new paradigm, but rather offers a set of very convenient tools. Scientist have already been living in a "learning society", albeit that that society doesn't contain vast numbers of people. New systems, for example Wikipedia, enable anyone with an internet connected web browser to become part of a similar society. But don't expect to get a Nobel prize any time soon for your Wikipedia article.
For society at large it should be beneficial to involve as many people as possible in creating and augmenting information and knowledge, especially if they and even more people would use it for the greater good. One obvious problem is to separate the wheat from the chaff, as many people crank out enormous amounts of content. Lot's of potential research here: methods to search, rank, collaborate, and assess all that information.

When mere citizens publish content at large a number of other issues race their ugly faces. Teemu showed a really nice video that highlighted (amongst others) things such as: identity, authorship, copyright, security, privacy, reliability, trust, etc. An introductory analysis of the impact of "Web 2.0" on, or the requirements for changes in, even one of these aspects would deserve a lecture on its own, but it would have been nice to hear a couple of examples. If only to illustrate the need for different approaches, and hence skill sets. For example copyright issues largely need to be addressed by laws and business models, there is more than enough technology around it. Whereas for identity and privacy issues reasonably good protocols and expression languages exist but easy-to-use tools and services are missing.

Finally, I think that learning how to effectively participate in a learning society is quite a significant challenge. Fairly advanced social skills may be required; a recent post on TechCrunch hints at the kind of skills required. Perhaps for a "learning society" to really take off it must somehow "bootstrap" those social skills ?