Speed Dating at the 2012 Learning Technologies

On Wednesday, January 25th I attended the Learning Technologies exhibit at Olympia in London. I used agreeadate to schedule as many meetings with corporate learning luminaries as possible. Next to catching up, I decided to ask each of them the following four questions:

  1. What will be the most exciting (professional) thing you are planning to do in 2012?
  2. Which corporate learning trend will “break through” this year?
  3. Which company (other than your own) is doing interesting things in the learning space?
  4. What was the best book you have read in 2011?

So here goes, in the same order as during the day:

Steve Dineen

Steve is the Chief Executive at Fusion Universal. We mainly talked about Fuse their video-centric social platform. In the next few weeks they will swap out the current video player and will replace it with one that makes it easier to display subtitles and transcripts, will do bandwidth detection and will allow for much better reporting on how the video has been viewed. They will also roll out adaptive testing with adaptive learning journeys. See here for example:

His answers to my four questions were as follows:

  1. The implementation of pull learning, seeing learning as a journey rather than a process and then the provision of the environment to let personal learning happen (as a platform and an environment). Another exciting thing is the Virtual School, they should be going live with a full secondary school curriculum by September.
  2. People will start to understand that not all learning needs to be centered around a course. This is a big paradigm shift for which we are now seeing the pioneers emerging.
  3. Fusion is not necessarily taking inspiration from the learning technology community. Instead, they are taking inspiration from YouTube. It is incredible to see what they have done to their platform. On design matters they take inspiration from Apple.
  4. The four books he enjoyed in the last few months were The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs and Presentation Zen, Good to Great and The Innovators Dilemma.

Barry Sampson

Barry is one of the three partners in Onlignment, a learning consultancy with broad capability. He is also responsible for changing my life by properly introducing me to Markdown, the greatest thing since sliced bread for people who have to do a lot of writing of any kind. They have put a lot of effort into truly blending their own offerings. Rather than just teach a course on learning design for a few days they now design a journey towards independence. For one client they do a workshop first and then one-on-one coaching sessions (virtual and face to face). The end result will include e-learning content created by the participants themselves and guided by Onlignment.

Onlignment's Circles

Onlignment's Circles

His answers to my four questions were as follows:

  1. Making the circles live. The circles make it very clear what Onlignment is offering and from now on we will only do work on things that fit with these circles.
  2. What we will see is a lot of mobile learning done badly (“everyone will screw up mobile this year”). Everybody will deliver e-learning content on mobile technology. It is usually crap on a PC and will be worse on mobile. He has also seen more Moodle vendors than ever before at this exhibit, so Moodle seems to be breaking through too.
  3. Two companies that are doing interesting things are Aardpress and Coloni. The former has a Software as a Service (SaaS) version of Moodle and the latter has a great licencing model: you pay on the basis of the space you take on their servers (their roots are a website development company) and they are very actively engaged with their clients.
  4. The only book that Barry has read in the last year is a book about becoming a dad.

Lawrence O’Connor

Lawrence was the only person who was excused from my four questions. Instead we had a discussion around topics like mindmapping, authenticity, tools for conviviality (and the speed of transportation), theatre and doing what you love. We spotted Jaron Lanier who has written the thought provoking You are Not a Gadget, but were too late to invite him over to join our lunch.

Amir Elion

Amir works for Kineo Israel an e-learning development company and has written 100 Presentation Ideas which is now also available as an iPhone app. I have had many virtual meetings with Amir over the last two years (he participated in the Learning in 3D reading group for example, but this was the first time we got together in real life.

His answers to my four questions were as follows:

  1. The first thing that he is looking forward to is to try and see if mobile learning can be made into something real. It has a lot of potential and is a new way of supporting performance. There are still many questions around it that need to be answered. There is a lot of technical work to do, but more importantly the learning models and the performance support models will need to be rebuild. Kineo is doing pilots with a few clients. The second thing he is excited about is advancing blending learning through using a learning typology. He has started drawing a table explaining which type of solutions solve particular challenges.
  2. He hopes the break-through trend will be the open source Learning Management System (LMS) and would prefer that to be Totara. In Israel that is very likely to happen. Many companies there do not have an easy way to track learning now and the fear for open source has subsided. Companies now actually see the advantages of open source: flexibility, lower costs and supplier independence (“there is always another Totara partner”).
  3. The companies that are creating the development tools are really moving forward quickly. Articulate Storyline is exciting in how it really supports non-linear learning and now can also work in Hebrew and other right-to-left language. The latest version of Adobe Captivate is also good. These companies really work with the e-learning development companies to incorporate e-learning best practices into their tools. Other than that it is mostly individuals that he learns from. Donald Clark, Cathy Moore with her Action Mapping, Cammy Bean (from Kineo US) or David Kelley.
  4. The book he liked was Drive. The concepts of autonomy, mastery and purpose can directly be applied in corporate learning.

Kineo has a tradition of producing very useful promotional booklets. They gave me a copy of the very sensible Designing Mobile Learning (available on the Free Thinking area of their website) . It has ten tips on designing mobile learning:

  1. Always ask “Why make this mobile?”
  2. Use those off the shelf information and communication apps NOW
  3. Bring the informal into the blend
  4. Make sure it’s more than e-learning on a tablet
  5. Make it tactile
  6. You’re in their personal space; you’d better make it worth their while
  7. Make the limited space count
  8. Consider developing templates for efficient design
  9. Extend the impact of your media assets
  10. Find the right place to use mobile learning in your new-look blends

and 10 examples of where mlearning can make a difference:

  1. Make it easy to review the latest news and information
  2. Scan it, learn about it
  3. Just-in-time guides
  4. Performance support and checklists
  5. You know where I am, help me!
  6. Refresher learning
  7. Push reminders
  8. ‘Mobile company uses mobile learning’ shocker… Use the medium they use
  9. The LMS on the go
  10. Talk to me, interactively

David Perring

David is director of research the UK-based and EMEA focused educational technology analysts Elearnity. Elearnity has been working hard at writing vendor perspectives. The summaries will be available for free and the in-depth reports are available for a fee.

His answers to my four questions were as follows:

  1. The most interesting and exciting thing for him is always working with clients who have interesting challenges. It is fascinating to work for people who have different perspectives but also bring intelligence into the process. For him it is the “freshness of working with 10 organizations rather than with one”.
  2. He is not sure that there will be any more break throughs in the next year. Certain organizations might have find some “inspirational moments”, a lightbulb going on. Maybe some sales forces will start using mobile technology for its real potential, rather than having people use mobile technology in the classroom. He thinks the economic pressures will mean that there might be a lot more technology assisted learning and less face to face training in the years ahead.
  3. He doesn’t believe you will find companies doing interesting things, you will always find people doing interesting things. It is very difficult to find people in organizations who are willing to share the interesting things they are doing: the catalysts for change, the mavens who help organisations reach tipping points.
  4. The book he really enjoyed reading last year was Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler, My Part in his Downfall. Milligan is a comic genius.

We also discussed how great it would be to create more pencasts, using the Livescribe to sketch out and explain concepts. This is something that is still on my list to try out properly.

Rob Hubbard

Rob runs his own company LearningAge Solutions and is the chair of the E-learning Network (ELN). The ELN was present at Learning Technologies and was campaigning hard for effective elearning through “The Campaign for Effective Elearning” (also see: #c4ee on Twitter. He is very worried that people will start to think that all e-learning is cheap and crap. This would be bad for the industry (I see this kind of reaction in my company already). The ELN will therefore start highlighting things that really make a difference. Rob will be a busy man in 2012 because there is a publishing deal with Wiley Pfeiffer for a book from the ELN and with LearningAge he has created a piece of web based technology that implements the concept of “goal-based learning”, which is all about solving the transfer problem and putting learning into practice.

His answers to my four questions were as follows:

  1. He hopes that he will be able to do a very big project which uses games and simulations to train thousands of people up to a certain skill level. Another exciting thing is his Rapid E-Learning Design course (I met Rob as a pilot participant of this truly excellent course) which he will be offering for free for the first time this year. Why free? Because it is a great way to meet new people.
  2. Something that really seems to be gathering pace is the concept of gamification. People are starting to take it more seriously and the market is picking up on that, there even was one stand that advertised with “gamify your learning”. He likes how it aligns with the way our brain works: we have always learned through experimenting and getting awards for behaviour that works.
  3. HT2 is doing interesting stuff, but in general he would consider science fiction to be more inspiring than what other companies are doing. One thing he showed me as an inspiration was an an interactive storybook on the iPad titled The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore made by Moonbot studios. It is incredible interactive and it teaches children how to play a song on the piano or how to write with the letters in a cereal bowl.
  4. He is really enjoying The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson which at some level is basically a book about e-learning and performance support.

Laura Overton

Laura is the Managing Director of Towards Maturity an organization that helps companies get the most out of their learning technology. She was incredibly busy at the conference trying to connect “upstairs” (where the conference is) to “downstairs” (where the salespeople are exhibiting) through organising exchanges between speakers at the conference and attendees at the exhibit.

Her answers to my four questions were as follows:

  1. One of the things Towards Maturity is looking at in 2012 is how to use all the data they have for practical change and to stimulate thinking. They will start doing some sector views. Next week they are launching a series of in-focus reports on particular issues that they know are holding the industry back. One of them is the cycle of indifference to change. One research report will be focused on business leaders asking them to demand more and be less satisfied. She hopes this will stimulate some new dialog between business and learning. She would not consider herself a technologist, instead she wants people to act: it does not matter what technology they use as long as they get better results.
  2. A lot of people expect social learning to break through. She doesn’t think that will happen this year, especially the use of external social media (i.e. Facebook) will not work. Mobile learning is really on the verge of break through. User-generated content and an openness to that is an interesting thing too. They have seen quite a bit of growth in that.
  3. She naturally has something good to say about all the Towards Maturity ambassadors. She likes the e-learning vendors that are really looking at the business issue. They come up with business solutions rather than with elearning modules. Things like natural assessment, storytelling, experiential learning. Concepts rather than the technology.
  4. She thought Nudge, a book about influencing and persuasion, was great.

Ben Betts

Ben has his own company H2T and inhabits the edge between academic research and innovative education technology practice.

His answers to my four questions were as follows:

  1. He is the most excited about Mozilla’s Open Badges project. He hopes it can help bridge the gap between Open Educational Resources and traditional formal accreditation. Anybody or any organisation can become a badge prodider (it will be one of my goals to start handing out Hans de Zwart-related badges before the end of the year), so he could already see something similar happening as in LinkedIn, “I recommend you and you recommend me”. I could see how you might get a meta-badge ecosystem with accreditors accrediting accreditors (Where would the buck stop? At Stephen Downes?). In 2012 he will also finish his doctorate thesis which is currently titled “Improving Participation in Collaborative Learning Environments” (I hope he doesn’t follow Dougiamas’ footsteps on this one).
  2. There was one word that he thought would be the word to watch for 2012. Unfortunately he could recollect it and then had to go for “Curation” (which he think is probably last year’s word).
  3. He quite likes what Epic is doing with Gomo, although they still have some way to go. Another great company is of couse Mozilla. He wasn’t particularly overwhelmed by Apple’s iBook announcement.
  4. The most interesting book for him was probably the biography of Steve Jobs. He is currently reading Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Also good was A Theory of Fun for Game Design which shows that having learned something is the definition of fun in a game. Another great book was Business Model Generation (I just read that too). Finally he would like to recommend Resonate by Nancy Duarte, which is basically “stuff you already know put really complicated” (mostly about telling stories), but it the best example he knows of how a book should be layed out.


I didn’t have a lot of time to spend at the exhibit, but did do a very quick walkaround and found companies I just want to highlight:

  • Toolwire is going to evolve what they call Learnscapes into gamescapes, using their normal interface and turning it into a realtime multiplayer event.
  • I have never written about Lynda on this blog before. They provide videos teaching people how to do things with software applications (think about teaching you a particular effect in Photoshop for example). You can pay per video or get a subscription. They are hugely successful. I consider them another example of a thing that “geeks” have managed to get right, without the rest of the world noticing. Why aren’t they an enlightened example in the corporate learning world? Related to this I will create a theme for myself this year: Open source communities have been the first to find solutions for certain problems (collaboration at scale for example). What can businesses learn from this?

It was a great privilege to be able to speak to these eight people in a single day (I could have talked for hours with each and everyone of them…) and it takes an event like Learning Technologies to bring these people together. I will have to find a good reason to go again next year. Maybe a speaking engagement?

ISOC Chapter Leadership Workshop



On Thursday, November 10th and Friday, November 11th, I am attending a chapter workshop of the Internet Society (ISOC). Below my (largely unedited) notes on these two days. This might be less relevant for my regular readers. But you might still find something useful here, especially if you are interested in how to create sustainable volunteer based organisations.

Opening of the day, introduction to ISOC.

The European bureau was started about one and a half years ago to help the relationship between ISOC and its members. Looking back on 2011, there have been many European activities around the following topics:

  • IPv6
  • Network neutrality
  • DNS blocking
  • Copyright
  • ISOC has been recognized by the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)
  • Human rights and the Internet

The future will be much more complex, so ISOC has put a lot of their plans for 2012-2014 online.

Jacek Gajewski is the new chapter development manager. There are also some next generation leaders in the room.

Currently there are about 84 ISOC chapters all over the world. The number of chapters is still increasing (20% growth in 2011!). Chapters have life cycles. Sometimes they are very lively and then sometimes they become inactive and need to be rejuvenated. There a few basic documents that can help you start and run a chapter. They are developing a dashboard for chapters (draft). There are also several toolkits (examples are Mobilising volunteers or Unravelling the Net Neutrality/Open Internetworking Debate). There are website templates for new chapters. They have many regional workshops for chapters (next year they will have a global INET workshop for the 20th anniversary of the ISOC, April 2012 in Geneva).

Some new services are being developed. An example are the live streams of previous ISOC related meetings.

Every chapter is allowed to apply for event funding once per year. Special projects van also be funded. If you need support as a chapter, you can contact chapter-support at isoc dot org.

Helping associations create value and have long term health

Peggy Hofman and Peter Houstle from Mariner Management have a lot of experience in “helping association volunteers and staff create the greatest possible value for [their] members and in ensuring the long term health and growth of [their] association”. They facilitate the day.

Are chapters structures that can actually do large projects?

The head of the Romanian chapter talked about what he calls “Hobbit Management”. They run the chapter by projects. For every project they define a project leader who is 100% responsible for the project. They try to have a diversity of project leaders. In the European Union there is already a lot of money available for projects. This is maybe why European chapters make less use of the chapter funding that ISOC provides. To be able to deal with the EU, you need to have a real formal organisation and need to have the ability to check off all the points on their checklists. One question he has is whether we can use ISOC Geneva as a proxy organisation that enables local chapters to do EU projects.

Walda Roseman, COO of ISOC, shares with us that there will be an incorporated ISOC entity in each region. This will make it easier to take part in intergovernmental activities and it will create a way for ISOC to receive grant money. They are also planning to help chapters get better at applying for community grants by teaching them how to write grant proposals and by sharing grant program best practices.

The head of the Armenian chapter for ISOC shared some of the projects that the Armenian chapter had been involved with recently. They created and up-to-date regional community Internet center, helped to start up an Armenian Internet Exchange (ARMIX foundation), upgraded an Armenian academic (research) network for IPv6 readiness and is establishing a content creation centre for Armenia. They have a true multi-stakeholder model. I believe that this is something that ISOC NL can work a bit more on. Especially the corporate side is underrepresented in our Dutch ISOC community.

How do we arrive at common ISOC positions and how does an ISOC chapter get their position heard?

There is a feeling that it is difficult to arrive at common positions about certain topics. We were urged to have more bottom-up discussions: we can ask questions on the regional ISOC mailing lists and have a discussion about the topic afterwards.

I suggested that ISOC could be inspired by the way that the online discussion was held around the writing of the GPL v3. They used stet (which is not actively developed any more, the project now recommends Co-ment) that allowed people to comment on parts of the text. The more comments a piece of text go the more red it would become. This could be a way for ISOC to develop its policy in a slightly more transparent way.

A Polish chapter lead showed how they become a real public policy partner in his country. They were forced to start dealing with public policy issues by a set of laws that they didn’t like. His first advice is to take your time. Some policy decision take a real long time. They now became part of the law-making process: they have survived six prime ministers. This allows you to focus on your core values (because you know your counter party will not be around forever). We have a huge advantage over other lobbyists: we do it for a passion. This makes it easy to stay neutral. The first step to get there is: write, write, write. “Publish or perish”. You have to put your position on (digital) paper. Over time you will be part of their mailing list, then slowly you get involved in the real decision making process. If you publish: others may pick up your work and new people will come and join you. What motivates him: the opportunity to work with incredible people that normally you would not have access to. Also “hacking the system is fun”, he is changing the world in his own way. His advice comes with some disclaimers: “Caveat Emptor, your mileage may vary”, but “do try this at home!”

“Call in the young people because they are afraid of nothing” “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it” “You have to be very careful with what your values are”

Homework for me: we need to be more clear about what our values are in the Dutch chapter. What are things that we are willing to really “lobby” for?

Ideas about future ISOC e-courses

Ulkar Bayramova presented her thoughts about future ISOC e-courses. She thinks that is important because courses will give a lot of people access to the knowledge around ISOC, it will bring people together and can find talented future leaders. The courses should be made interesting by the topic (useful in life or career), the methodology (multi-medial, based on peer interactions) and by giving out university certificates at the end of it. It is important to take bandwidth considerations into account. She would also like to give people access to the e-libraries of universities (I personally don’t think that is strictly necessary: this is not an academic course perse and all the information that is needed for it should be open and public anyway).

A participant in the Next Generation Leaders programme gave a couple of ideas for making the courses more widely available. One thing that is very important is localization. She also suggested using SCORM to create personalised learning journeys. I don’t think that would add anything, so will lobby ISOC to stay well away from SCORM and spend their energy elsewhere.

Roseman announced that ISOC will launch a new program next year titled: “Sustainable leadership” with three pillars:

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Social responsibility
  • Innovation

They still need to do thinking around how to run this program efficiently and effectively.

How do you engage people in volunteering?

In break-out groups we tried to answer the following question: “The last time I got someone to do something for the chapter it was because I…” or its counterpart “The last time I personally offered to do something for the chapter it was because I…”.

Our group came up with the following ideas:

  • Giving them the opportunity to be important, empowering them to be in charge.
  • Calling it a “Macedodian” ISOC (this only makes sense if you know about this!)
  • Giving people an opportunity to be connected to another world
  • By being connected to all the player in the IT field in your country (while staying neutral of course)
  • Allow people to bring their ideas
  • Allow access to knowledge and experience (can be important when it is hard to get internships) and provide facilities for training
  • Access to facilities (e.g. internet access or computers) that they might otherwise not have access to
  • Ask people to do what they are good at or what they would love to do
  • Hook into what people were going to do anyway, focus on passion
  • Create small tasks for other people to do: creating a process/infrastructure that lowers the transaction costs to farm out work to others. Only by giving people the opportunity to participate will they actually participate. This hurts in the beginning!
  • Use more interactive technology: like an email newsletter via WordPress and the social networks
  • Because of being a bit more daring and provocative (counter to ISOC default way of operating), maybe even activist
  • Give away something for free, but get commitment back for it
  • The opportunity to promote yourself
  • If they like the topic of an event it is more interesting to get them involved
  • Look at psychology: empathy, seduction, manipulation, conversion
  • The opportunity to travel or enlarge their personal perspective in a particular way

Another interesting one that was added by another group was:

  • Use crisis as an opportunity: always great to bring people together

Research into volunteers has shown that volunteers get activated because of three things:

  1. There has to be passion involved
  2. They will get something back (“what’s in it for me”)
  3. There has to be a “Personal ask”. This is the most important one as people will rarely say “no” to something when they are personally asked. When they have said “yes” once, it is likely that they will say “yes” again.

We also discussed the issue of succession. One truism that came out of that was: The longer you stay in position, the harder it will become to find a replacement.

The new ISOC website

ISOC will launch a new website very soon. It won’t be a static launch, but rather they are ready to get input and iterate. This will also likely mean a new website template (improving this old one) The ISOC Asssociation Management System (AMS) will be made a bit more friendly. There will be a series of webinars explaining chapter how to use the chapter portal (this will include the AMS).

My thoughts and reflections

After spending three days with some of the people at the core of the Internet Society two things struck me pretty clearly:

  • For an organization that is completely focused on the Internet, it is slightly ironic that in the way that ISOC organizes itself it seems to have taken none of the lessons of the Internet on board. I am not sure how aware its leadership is of this fact and don’t see any easy way to change this, but I do believe it will hinder ISOC’s effectiveness in the long run.
  • The shift from engineers to lawyers, or rather from technical advocacy to policy advocacy is very palpable. From a the viewpoint of a relative outsider it looks like there is great governance for the technical problems (with many of the technical problems already behind us), whereas there is little or no clarity about policy problems. I have doubts whether ISOC is positioning itself well enough to be able to handle this shift (I believe a clear majority of the people in the workshop were engineers).
Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen

Sidenote: Fridtjof Nansen and the Nansen passport

At one part during the workshop we had a discussion about digital IDs. One of the workshop delegates mentioned the Nansen passport which is something I hadn’t heard about before. In the summer of 2010 I visited the Fram Museum and learned about Nansen’s heroic adventures trying to get to the north pole. I didn’t learn there about his work for the League of Nations. Now I have all the more reason to start reading his biography that has been sitting on my bookshelves for a while now.

Access, Trust and Freedom: Coordinates for the Future Internet

I am now in Bucharest, Romania at the INET Conference organised by the Internet Society (ISOC). The Internet Society:

[brings] together Members, Chapters, and partners [and] is at the center of the largest global network of people and organizations focused on ensuring the Internet continues to evolve as a platform for innovation, collaboration, and economic development. By tackling issues at the intersection of technology, policy, and education, [they] work collaboratively to preserve and protect the multistakeholder model of development and management that has been key to the Internet’s success.

The one day conference, titled “Access, Trust and Freedom: Coordinates for the Future Internet” had the following topics:

  • Internet access in Romania (from a national and international perspective)
  • Trust and Privacy
  • Freedom of speech
  • The future of the Internet


The day opened with a short speech in Romanian by Emil Zahan, Director of Cabinet of the Romanian Ministry of Communications. I missed picking up the headsets with the simultaneous translation, so I am not sure what he talked about. Neelie Kroes had recorded a video message for the conference. This is now the third time I have looked at Kroes’ big blown-up face talking about broadband access, privacy, e-inclusion and how there has to be a balance in rights and freedoms on the net. I am not sure that this is an effective way of getting her message out or influencing stakeholders.

Protection, Trust, Privacy: Can we have it all?

View on Bucharest from the Eight Floor of the Palace of the Parliament

View on Bucharest from the Eight Floor of the Palace of the Parliament

After a morning session about Internet in Romania (did you know Romania has the fourth fastest broadband access in the world?) and a very quick visit to the baffling and partly obscene Palace of the Parliament, I attended a panel session about trust and privacy.

According to one of the panelist “privacy” is recognized as a universal right in the Declaration of Human Rights, but there is no universally recognized definition of what “privacy” is.

The stage was set by the CEO of Bitdefender who made us all realise that consumers have no idea about how vulnerable they are and where the problem might lie. There was a lot of discussion about whether educating citizens would be helpful. I personally don’t believe this at all and think most of the speakers underestimated the need for solid architecture that enables smart behaviour by users of Information Technology.

The panelist were too diverse to come to any real discussion. One of them was a policy adviser who had to read from a script, the next person was partly responsible for Romania’s network security and he kept warning people that they need to be aware. A technical director from Microsoft assured us that Microsoft is on top of all the Net’s problems (“probably the only major IT vendor”). The only person who was refreshingly straight in making his point was Professor Joseph Cannataci who clearly had a much better understanding of a problem as whole than his fellow panelist and the audience (not that he had any straightforward answers on how to solve the conundrum).

Scenarios for the Internet of tomorrow

Spread over the day the organisers showed the four scenarios for the future of the Internet that have come out of their scenario planning exercise. You can watch the trailer here:

All videos can be seen on this page. Which scenario tickles your fancy and which one do you think is the most likely to be the outcome in ten years?


There will be a workshop for ISOC chapters. Expect another post!

Digital Civil Rights: a Guest Lecture

Today I had the pleasure of doing a guest lecture for Bits of Freedom at the University of Leiden in a course titled Anthropology of Information Society. I used many examples to try and drive home two points:

  1. Technology is not just a tool, it is not “neutral”
  2. You can help change technology for the better

One thing the students did, was write their own personal data policies (kind of like a reverse terms of service for using a webservice). This is something that I intend to explore further in this blog pretty soon.

You can also download the presentation as a 12MB PDF file.

Looking forward to any comments that you might have.

Make Sure You Read This: Hackers by Steven Levy


Hackers by Steven Levy

Wow! This is a masterful book.

Levy reports on three different eras that have shaped modern computing:

  • The group of hackers at MIT in the early sixties who were the first to use computers for anything other than computing things (the first computer game, the first chess computer, the first time that a computer is connected to a robot, etc.) and created a culture, the hacker ethic, in the process.
  • The people around the Homebrew Computer Club in California in the early seventies who were the first to create hardware at a scale that could work for hobbyists and in households
  • A group of Apple and Atari enthusiasts (fanatics?) who invented whole new genres of gaming and birthed the modern game industry in the early eighties.

Levy is an excellent writer (you have read In The Plex, haven’t you?) and through his writing I was immediately and completely awed by the brilliant playfulness of these geniuses.

The hacker ethic is something that still today has tremendous value. Levy teases out these principles from the MIT culture that he investigates:

  1. Access to computers—and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust Authority—Promote Decentralization. (From the book: “Bureaucracies, whether corporate, government, or university, are flawed sys-tems, dangerous in that they cannot accommodate the exploratory impulse of true hackers.”)
  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  6. Computers can change your life for the better.

Paragraphs like this:

As for royalties, wasn’t software more like a gift to the world, something that was reward in itself? The idea was to make a computer more usable, to make it more exciting to users, to make computers so interesting that people would be tempted to play with them, explore them, and eventually hack on them. When you wrote a fine program you were building a community, not churning out a product.

made me understand more fully why Richard Stallman is so pained thinking about what we lost. Greenblatt is also pretty vocal:

The real problem, Greenblatt says, is that business interests have intruded on a culture that was built on the ideals of openness and creativity. In Greenblatt’s heyday, he and his friends shared code freely, devoting themselves purely to the goal of building better products. “There’s a dynamic now that says, ‘Let’s format our web page so people have to push the button a lot so that they’ll see lots of ads,‘” Greenblatt says. “Basically, the people who win are the people who manage to make things the most inconvenient for you.”

Some things haven’t changed though. Go to places like Fosdem and you realize that the following is still the case:

It is telling, though, to note the things that the hackers did not talk about. They did not spend much time discussing the social and political implications of computers in society (except maybe to mention how utterly wrong and naive the popular conception of computers was). They did not talk sports. They generally kept their own emotional and personal lives—as far as they had any—to themselves. And for a group of healthy college-age males, there was remarkably little discussion of a topic, which commonly obsesses groups of that composition: females.

There is a lot of hacker wisdom:

[..] An important corollary of hackerism states that no system or program is ever completed. You can always make it better. Systems are organic, living creations: if people stop working on them and improving them, they die.

This book was written in the mid eighties and discusses some topics that are still relevant today. Read the following paragraph and think about the current battle between Android and iOS: hackers insist

[..] that when manuals and other “secrets” are freely disseminated the creators have more fun, the challenge is greater, the industry benefits, and the users get rewarded by much better products.

We also encounter Bill Gates and Steve Jobs right at the start of their companies. I thought it very was very funny how already then they showed something of their later self: Gates was complaining publicly in 1976 how everybody was just copying his version of Altair Basic without paying for it and Jobs was already purely focused on marketing, the user experience and what the actual hardware would look like (even when you opened the Apple 2, it had to look neat and accessible).

We absolutely have to thank O’Reilly for republishing this classic!