Tuesday 17 February 2009

'The Future of Unemployment'

Slightly belatedly, here's the article I wrote for last week's Agit8 magazine:

What do you do when you find yourself with a lot more time and a lot less money on your hands than you’re used to? That may be the most important question of 2009.

Start with the numbers: worldwide, the UN estimates as many as 51 million people could become unemployed this year. Here in Britain, if the analysts are right, one million people who currently have jobs won’t do in twelve months’ time. What happens next for those people will shape the kind of society we live in, over the next decade and beyond.

I want to think about some of the ways this situation could play out. In particular, I’m interested in whether the things we’ve learned from social media over the last few years can play a role in lessening the hardship of this recession and shaping the world which comes out the other side.


Thursday 12 February 2009

Hacking The Recession - TOMORROW!

If you're in London and free tomorrow, come down to the Hacking the Recession day at Birkbeck College - one of the projects that's spun out of the conversations I've been blogging about over the last few weeks. People with geek skills are particularly welcome, but they're letting non-coders like me come too.

To get a clearer idea of what to expect, I interviewed Mamading Ceesay, the brains behind the event.

DH: What do you want out of the day?

MC: We want to inspire people to come up with creative solutions to not only surviving, but thriving during the recession - that improves outcomes not only for individuals and their families, but entire communities. These solutions should not be based on needing state or local authority action but rather on ordinary people coming together and collaborating in similar ways to that enabled by the likes of Wikipedia and Pledgebank.

DH: And what about people who come along?

MC: It's about ensuring that there are options for you and the people you care about to lead purposeful, meaningful lives, even in a time of mass unemployment when there may be no jobs available.

DH: So what would success look like?

MC: Any of the following would be a really successful outcome, I think:

  • Working code that implements an idea that helps people deal with the impact of the recession.
  • Documentation of a potential solution for recession-caused issues, that provides enough information for a team to implement it.
  • A presentation/pitch that could be used to persuade funders and other kinds of supporters to back the implementation of a solution.

DH: Have you got some examples of the kind of thing you have in mind?

MC: Well, think about the kind of tools you use for jobs around the house. If there's a lot less money around, then there's less opportunity for people to have their own drills and so on. However, if there is some sort of tool library/directory system, you can find out who in your area has tools that you can borrow to get a much needed piece of DIY done. When you borrow a tool, it's recorded in the system as is the return of the tool. This enables more effective sharing and pooling of resources in a community that can no longer rely on money and the market for getting things done.

Another example - people being able to barter their time and skills with each other using a system combining the web and SMS. This would make it easier for a community to survive and thrive with much less money. It also helps people to be gainfully employed without a salaried job.

Hacking The Recession is happening tomorrow - Friday 13th February - at Room 540, Birkbeck College, WC1E 7HX. (Entrance off Torrington Square.)

For more details, contact Mamading.

Friday 6 February 2009

Clay Shirky at the LSE

Clay Shirky may be right that a loose collection of bloggers can't replace a newsroom full of journalists, but London's social reporters did a pretty good job of covering his visit this week. David Wilcox has a great write-up of his Tuesday night talk at the LSE, which I was there for, while Michael Mahemoff posted detailed notes from the ICA on Wednesday.

It was Shirky's change of mind on the democratic potential of the web which made headlines. "We are not ready for massive legitimating moves of unstructured participation across the larger issues," he told the LSE audience. "That’s the first time I’ve said that in public."

The key example he returned to during the discussion was change.gov - the Obama administration's official transition website, which asked people to vote on what should be his first priority in office. The issue that came out on top was the legalisation of marijuana.

Andy Gibson from Sociability points out that this doesn't actually prove anything about how people behave in a context of collaborative decision-making, since the site only gave them an opportunity to get attention. An exercise without any consequences isn't much of a guide to how people will act in a more serious situation. "If you want to know how people behave in power, look at how we run our organisations, our communities, our families, our relationships."

Meanwhile, JP Rangaswami - who was at the ICA talk - muses about whether choice over the allocation of our taxes might be the way to get beyond the limits of voting systems. That would certainly be one way to add that necessary seriousness. (And if it sounds unrealistic, check out the history of Porto Alegre's participative budget - and the UK government's plans for local participatory budgets in the near future.)

Interesting discussions - and a reminder of why I'm glad to work with such bright people as Andy and JP on School of Everything. But I wanted to pick out four other ideas which Shirky touched on, which relate to my recent posts about social media and the recession.

The sudden shift in role for new technologies in a time of crisis: For example, the London tube bombings took camera phones and video-sharing sites from "that's interesting" (or not, according to your opinion), to "this is a critical tool that we must have."

If this can happen as a result of a one-off event, what about longer historical moments of crisis, such as the one we're living through? "The global financial crisis we're in the middle of means that the speed and depth of adoption of some of these tools is going to surprise us - because we're in a situation where none of the old things work."

The complex relationship between money and motivation: Someone asked a question about how you pay the rent, if you devote yourself to a collaborative project. In response, Shirky brought up Edward Deci's experiment into the relationship between external reward and intrinsic motivation.

Deci set two groups of students the task of solving a kind of puzzle. One group were paid per puzzle solved, the other group weren't paid at all. After telling them that they had completed the task, he left each group in the room and observed their behaviour over the next few minutes. He found that those who hadn't been paid continued playing with the puzzles - whereas those who were paid tended not to. Conclusion: being paid to do something can actually reduce the intrinsic reward you might otherwise have found in the activity. Or, as Shirky put it:

The link between solving the grocery shortage problem and doing what you have to do isn't, in fact, linear - and there are places where money actually worsens the transaction. If you have a nice date, it's acceptable to send flowers the next day, it is not acceptable to send the amount of money the flowers would have cost!

It seems to me that, if - as I wrote last week - we need to get beyond the binary of employed/unemployed, the subtle relationship between intrinsically-rewarding activity and financially reward which Deci's experiment highlighted is worth bearing in mind.

The possibilities of the "cognitive surplus": I'm cheating slightly here, since Shirky didn't really talk about "cognitive surplus" on Tuesday - though he did when I saw him last year at Demos (here's the podcast). The basic idea is that major social changes can liberate a lot of time and energy, which initially gets channelled into an addictive activity which at least keeps people docile. According to Shirky, this happened in the early Industrial Revolution with gin, and again in the 20th century with television. After the gin era, the same energy was channelled more fruitfully into the social reform of the 19th century, the age of public libraries and self-improvement societies. So what comes after the TV era...?

Now, I'm not comfortable with the kind of treating-people-as-resources thinking which a phrase like "cognitive surplus" represents. But it's certainly true that one of the stereotypes of unemployment is of someone sitting at home in front of the TV all day. If there are suddenly a lot more people who are used to working full time and now need something else to do, how could we make it easier to use that extra time and energy in other ways?

The main characteristic of emerging models is their diversity: Shirky was talking specifically about making money. "This isn't a transition from Business Model A to Business Model B, it's a transition from Business Model A to Business Models B to Z."

To me, the emphasis on not trying to find a single replacement model applies similarly to the traditional concept of the "job" - I'm convinced that less of us will have "jobs" in future, but that that doesn't have to mean that more of us are "unemployed", in the sense of having nothing to do and being unable to support ourselves. It also applies (as we've been discussing in the comments on last week's post) to the kinds of spaces for learning, making, collaborating, hanging out and starting new projects which I wrote about: a national, one-size-fits-all programme to create such spaces would be a disaster.

I realise that's a lot of ground skimmed over quite quickly. I'm writing more about some of this for Monday's issue of Agit8, and I look forward to carrying on the conversation - here, there and elsewhere.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

A moment of pragmatism?

I'm heading off to LSE in a few minutes, where Clay Shirky is speaking tonight. Journalism.co.uk has an interesting interview with him today - the following passage jumped out, in relation to my recent posts:

Significant changes often come at times of crisis, like the current financial downturn, adds Shirky, who says we are entering a two-three year period which could shape society for decades.

"In a crisis people lay their hands on what works without regard to how they've done it the past," he says. Often seen as informal changes, significant technological shifts quickly become part of the established political landscape, he says.

Shirky hopes that specifically British issues will get raised at tonight's debate. "When this stuff charges in the US the questions are 'what are the kids doing?' and 'what is it going to do to companies?' In the UK it is 'what is it going to do for the government and social exclusion?'

Two ideas there that resonate with the conversations I've been involved in over the last couple of weeks. Firstly, that the UK already stands out for applying ideas from the social web to solving social problems. (That doesn't mean we've done it brilliantly, just that it seems to be more of a focus of people's thinking and activity in the British startup scene.)

The second one is the idea that a major crisis can generate a moment of pragmatism - a point at which new ideas and approaches may suddenly get taken seriously, with lasting consequences. I don't know about anyone else, but I've been aware of a pragmatic openness to radical ideas lately, from a surprising range of directions.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Social Media vs the Recession - an update

Thanks to everyone who made it to Bethnal Green on Thursday to talk about social media responses to the recession - and to those who couldn't come, but asked to be kept in touch. Trying to summarise all the threads of discussion would make for a long post, but three plans came out of the evening:

(1) To host a larger conversation about social media and the recession, somewhere other than on this blog! This will include gathering information and sharing stories about the ways people are using existing tools and networks (or building new ones), as well as about the kind of "real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media". We're going to launch a group blog to do this and are looking for guest posts from various perspectives. We're also looking for co-hosts for a larger meetup where we can carry on this conversation face-to-face!

(2) To build a simple site which people can use to map resources, not just for the unemployed, but for anyone who finds themselves more cash poor and/or time rich than they're used to being. As a first step, Colin, Vinay and I are experimenting with building a prototype over the next couple of weeks.

(3) To organise a Hacking the Recession day on Friday 13th February, as part of JISC's Developer Happiness Days. Mamading is organising this and has posted some more information here.

I look forward to more interesting conversations about all this in the week ahead! If you're in London and coming to GlueSniffers on Monday or Clay Shirky/NetSquared on Tuesday, let's talk about it there.

UPDATE: GlueSniffers meetup postponed till next Monday (9th) due to snow

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This blog was my online home between 2006 and 2009. Today, you'll find me scattered across the internet. To start looking, go to my personal website: http://dougald.co.uk/

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