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Everything is in flux – constants in a liquid society

With each heavy storm of rain
Change comes o’er thy valley fair;
Once, alas! But not again
Can the same stream hold thee e’er.

(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Constancy in Change)[1]
In physics – after all that is the science where, in contrast to the humanities, everything has a set place – we distinguish between solid, liquid and gaseous substances. However, these states of aggregation are not constant, but can change under the influence of their surrounding conditions such as pressure and temperature. Solid becomes liquid, liquid becomes gaseous or the other way round.

We like to imagine the world as something static. It makes it calculable and predictable. That way we can pile it up, classify things and keep an overview. During transitional stages, these stable, solidified structures become undone, they shift and begin to swim. And this is necessary, for only if structures and particles are in flux can new patterns, new connections emerge and thus new answers become visible. We therefore need these phases of structures in flux, in order to advance – and yet we do not really like them, we find them uncanny.

Many people’s resistance towards a digital culture that they experience as disconcerting originates here: just when we had found a place for everything, things begin to fall apart. What we had considered solid, melts into the air.

Digital culture is fluid, liquid, thixotropic

The worldwide networking through digital media is indeed setting a lot of things in motion. Monopolies of knowledge are disappearing, communication has become more difficult to regulate and to channel (well: exploitable through surveillance). Sharing and swapping (of knowledge, household appliances, flats and cars) is growing in significance over owning and keeping. Digital platforms such as WikiLeaks, LobbyPlag and VroniPlag accumulate decentralised knowledge and render the system’s fractures and failures visible and transparent. Books, pictures and music can be copied and disseminated endlessly. This does indeed set a lot of things in motion. What used to be solid, has become liquid. And that is interesting.

In physics, the ability of a substance to liquefy through movement is referred to as thixotropy. This effect is known to us, for instance, from ketchup which we have to shake in order to pour it from the bottle.  The phenomenon was already known in the Middle Ages – some of the so-called “blood miracles”, where clotted blood from relics liquefied again upon shaking, can be explained that way.

Knowledge, culture and society too have thixotropic qualities: they can be set in motion, they change their state of aggregation, their form and their outline. The media plays an important part here. At the moment it is the media that sets things in motion. Our society changes its state of aggregation through digitalisation. Liquefaction paves the way for reorganisation, for the development of new, appropriate structures and for new cultural techniques.

“Alas” laments Goethe in the poem quoted above “But not again / Can the same stream hold thee e’er.” The “Alas” comes straight from the heart and is understandable. A liquid society makes us lose our security as things can no longer be planned.

And yet: let us look at the things that we gain.

Let us look at the things that have become free: which spaces have been opened up, by what means can we create? We lose control and we gain surprises. We lose certainty and we tap new potential in the unexpected. In many cases our improvisation is better than the original plan and will take us further.

Orality and Literality

During the, in terms of cultural history, brief phase of letterpress printing our culture has become “static”. Previously, it had been open, mobile and its structures were flexible: cultural goods, historical, religious and social information was shared and passed on orally. Legends, myths, fairy tales, chants and rituals created identities and transported the things it was important to know and be familiar with. Through oral repetition and dissemination the material to be passed on was filtered, enriched, changed and adapted by everyone, who was participating in the great narrative of the world.

Later on they tried to hold on to the all too ephemeral, furtive and transient aspects of this tradition in order to create visible evidence. The bible shows how different narrative strands have been interwoven and condensed in written form. When stories are no longer passed on from generation to generation the thread of tradition fades, because knowledge is not materialised. In an oral tradition without a narrator, knowledge is under threat of extinction. The brothers Grimm were worried about the demise of folk poetry and preserved it in their world-famous collection of fairy tales: “It was maybe about time, to preserve these fairy tales, because those who should preserve them, are becoming rare.” That is how the script has saved the narrative – and buried it at the same time by making it into something permanent.

With the letterpress printing, knowledge has become recordable: it is stored in material form outside the human being. Culture has thus become independent of time and space. Fixed between two book covers, knowledge was able to travel, from hand to hand, from libraries to readers, from countries to people. It could be disseminated without narrator and audience having to sit face to face as with a tribal structure.

This means two things: the content is invariably linked to a fixed typeface anatomy. And production and reception are separated. From now on there were authors who produced the content on the one side, and readers who consumed it on the other – and in between them the static creation in its final form.

Contribution and consumption : the web is breathing

Digital media is effectively changing the nature of our written culture: The digital writing space is available to everyone online. Many people can now access the same content simultaneously. They read, absorb and consume it. But that is not all: They are also changing it, they interfere and leave traces behind. They read, they write. The internet user is not just a reader, they are also producers. That is the mechanism behind Open Source Software where every user can change the source code and adapt it to their own needs. That is how the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia works, where readers are also potential authors. Marshall McLuhan summed up the electronic revolution in a nutshell: “Do it yourself” and “You are the poet”. All the explosive power of the digital culture is contained in these two sentences. The creative process is now immediately visible in the digital writing space. Through collaborative platforms writing becomes a social activity, the text itself becomes its effigy. The creative process, the material that, within a static printing culture, lies hidden deep down in archives and magazines in the form of authors’ notes and drafts, is visible from the beginning within a digital writing culture. Hitherto this dynamic was only possible in an oral tradition. We therefore arrive at the following formula: the internet constitutes a writing medium that works according to the rules of orality.

Culture wants to circulate

Digital media has lured culture away from its static existence in between the book covers: that is possible because we now have a technical infrastructure allowing us to do so. And because the desire to circulate is the very nature of culture. Circulating is much easier in the digital age than in a stating printing culture. Culture is set in motion.

None of this is new, of course. In 1962 Umberto Eco already described this tendency in his essay “The Open Work” (Opera aperta): culture needs to get out, it wants to be out and about and not fixed to a permanent position. Only its reception makes a work of art complete, a process that is repeated with every new recipient. Art does not have a fixed outline, instead it is always an incentive to discuss and engage with it. For the poet Paul Celan – long before the digital age – a poem was a “conversation”, “a handshake” it was “moving towards you”, it was looking for a counterpart. By imposing rigid forms we rob culture of its true nature. A society that is hostile towards culture will reduce it to a mere commodity. It will try to make it permanent, attribute a material value to it rather than a discursive one. Artists and other creative people are obliged to produce goods that can be piled up and sold and thus to put their art behind bars.  But culture is not a commodity, culture is a process.

Digital culture is by its nature largely discursive, it is based on a desire for commitment, relations and establishing contacts, the desire to share, exchange and communicate. So we have a lot of things circulating and in motion. All the questions linked to the digital change, i.e. those of copy right, the mash-up-culture, the plight of the Gatekeeper, are linked to this: how can we appreciate, value and honour a dynamic, non-static culture?

How to fashion a digital culture

As with anything that is a success, the digital culture has become a matter of economic interest. Enterprises with a talent for exploring social currents are paying close attention and understand the desires behind those currents: commitment, participation, exchange, becoming visible. They direct those currents and channel them in a way that is profitable. The desire to share our flat with friends and people from all over the world or to share a ride thus becomes a business model which gradually pushes back the initially social impulse. And yet we should always remember that digital culture is much more than mere online business.

The digital space is social space of interaction in which culture is created. A space created by all the people who move within it in order to contact each other, present themselves and connect to create new communities. Open systems and structures are always vulnerable. We are kept under surveillance, we are exploited and monetised. And yet: It remains our space and we should fill it with courage, creativity and adventure and that way make it our own. Let us make the digital cultural space our own!

[1] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Constancy in Change, trans. by Edgar Alfred Bowring in “The Poems of Goethe” (London: 1853), p. 121.

Read more:

Slow Media Manifest
Declaration of Liquid Culture

[original german version]


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Casa Jasmina

[Den Post auf Deutsch lesen]

“We must put human values into things, we must beware of the clashes among things. A smart house can clash with a happy house. The thoughtless convenience of seamless design can clash with the need for control and dignity. The users clash with the people. Our geek hood clashes with our personhood.”
Bruce Sterling

Casa Jasmina

Casa Jasmina, the first connected home built totally open source, celebrated its grand opening in Turin, Italy, on Saturday.

The Internet of Things

Smart homes -interconnected household appliances and domestic technology controlled by computer, connected cars -the automobile as cybernetic system, driving partly or even fully autonomous, wearable technology probes that we carry directly attached to our bodies, as smartwatches, wrist bands, or smart textiles, and finally smart cities, a pervasively networked communal administration – this is the IoT, the Internet of Things, which is about to enter our daily lives, and will maybe change it even more than the World Wide Web and the smartphone has done.

Smart Home

Smart Home

What is it like to live with connected technology? More than two billion people already access the Internet via their smartphones. A smartphone is in fact a platform to support some twenty different probes, sensors that continuously track our movements, whereabouts, connectivity, and many other dimensions. However, this is not how people experience using their devices. Phones and tablets appear quite similar to books with just a bit more functionality. We use our mobiles as media, and we hardly ever see them as part of some Internet of Things, of course. Thus is it far from trivial to make a truly connected life visible. So this is one aspect of what Casa Jamina is about: It is a showcase for living with connected technology at home.

Digital technology has changed almost everything in business as well as in our everyday lives. However, even if I recognized something would happen, I was never able to convince people of the consequences, that in my view had become unavoidable. Then change struck, and left its victims bleeding on the field, often enough lethally wounded. I love digital technology. I love social media, search engines, and wikis. But I moan about how easy we give away the public space, our people had been fighting hard to achieve. I moan loosing social and political control to economic reasoning. I don’t want to give away one other bit of what is left of our public goods. This is why we wrote the Slow Media Manifesto five years ago, this is why we argue to have Slow start-ups instead of more disruptive technologies. Demonstrating open alternative to proprietary platforms in the IoT is the second task, Casa Jasmina was conceived for.

Casa Jasmina

At Wired Nextfest 2013, I heard Bruce Sterling suggesting a possible strategy to counter the “Silicon Valley way” of doing technology, that with good cause is called “platform capitalism” by some: Bruce suggested Open source luxury. Instead of harvesting network effects, scalability, and winner-takes-it-all economics, he advocated for economic value, based on craft. Open source, he said, would be no contradiction to luxury, at all. It would rather foster craftsmanship as point of differentiation. Instead of forcing people into an operation system, to lock-in the users to subscription plans, open source luxury would offer convenience as well as freedom of choice. And from September 2014 on, Bruce announced how this idea would be rendered tangible: The Casa Jasmina. Named after Jasmina Tešanović who would originally came up with the idea, the first open source connected home would root into the Turin Fab Lab, and its Arduino ecosystem. It would be a field trial for technology which will pervade our homes one way or the other.

Casa Jasmina will be a connected home with real people living in it. It will be not just another corporate showroom with fancy displays that nobody will ever really use. No jetpacks, no flying cars, no talking refrigerators enhanced with silly home entertainment displays nobody had asked for.

Casa Jasmina is based on two foundations. First, the Arduino, open source hardware that has become the leading platform to control the IoT. The Arduino is a genuine Piemontese invention. Started at the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, it is developed by a team around Massimo Banzi in a small office above the Fab Lab in Turin. While open source, the Arduino is partnering also with traditional consumer electronics suppliers like Intel or Samsung. A huge community of people commits to the development of Arduino based applications. Together with its English counterpart, the Raspberry Pi microcomputer, the Arduino now provides the strongest support for the Internet of Things.

The second foundation is design. How things look, how things interact with us and with other things, what materials are used, and what story they tell, this is as important to what things are, as is their technical functionality. Casa Jasmina is somehow design fiction, design that shows, what would be possible, to let us experience, how that feels. But other than the regular design fiction, Casa Jasmina will have objects that really work, that can be used, or if not, to be replaced by other things that would do the job. Designing things that really work is different from doing a display to just show off. Thus the things to see at Casa Jasmina might be edgy, but they will have to work with the inhabitants, and not just preveil until some trade fair’s doors close.

What’s inside?

The buildings at Via Egeo that house the Fab Lab and Casa Jasmina are the remains of Turins famous industrial past as Italy’s center of metall processing industry.

And now it is there, at Via Egeo No. 16. The architecture of Casa Jasmina is genuine Futurismo Italiano: Built in the 1920s, the floor of the Casa used to be the apartment for some managing ranks of FIAT, sitting right on top of a steel foundry, meant to tear down the walls between private live and industry; what better metaphor could there be for what we have today! Like the futurists demanded but had never fully realized, the Internet of Things will diminish our privacy, the bourgeois concept of private home. But instead of letting this lead right into fascism, as we had seen futurism end in 1930s, we have the chance to nudge the contemporary futurism onto a benign, democratic trail. “We must put human values into things”, as Bruce Sterling put it.

Bruce Sterling and Lorenzo Romagnioli in Casa Jasmina's kitchen.

Bruce Sterling and Lorenzo Romagnioli in Casa Jasmina’s kitchen.

The exterior of Casa Jasmina still looks a bit run-down for Turin standards, but it would very well pass for an average apartment building in say Naples. The staircase leading to the building’s Piano Nobile is rather narrow and I suppose it was originally ment for servants and deliveries. We enter the flat through a small hallway, painted in dark grey, with a programmatic text of Bruce Sterling to introduce the visitor to the project -like you would expect an arrangement at some museum’s exhibition. Opposite of this wall lies a very basic bathroom.

Bookcase by Caterina Tiazzoldi

Bookcase by Caterina Tiazzoldi

Straight on, a spacious corridor opens, painted all white leading along huge windows on the right giving view to a roof garden. Left is a small living room, not seperated from the corridor by a door or threshold, but by a bookcase, a design study by Caterina Tiazzoldi. A spacious kitchen, also open to the corridor, lies separated by a wall next to the living room. Behind that follow to more rooms with doors, to be used as bedrooms when Casa Jasmina finally will house its inhabitants. At the end of the corridor, a few stairs lead to a wall with an A0 sized poster displaying an allegory of “The Internet of Women Things”.

"IoWT - the Internet of Women Things

“IoWT – the Internet of Women Things

Behind that might have been a double winged door that was probably the original main entrance. The floor in the bedrooms, the kitchen and living room is covered by an expensive, arfully made oak parquet that somehow survived the long decades during which the building had been abandoned and degrading.

Great confidence in the durability of Open Desk's furniture (also used as makeshift stairs)

Great confidence in the durability of Open Desk’s furniture (also used as makeshift stairs)

Most of the furniture is designed by Open Desk, a London based design shop that publishes patterns for furniture, easy to be cut out from plywood. Open Desk’s way of distributing their designs for free is far less uncommon than we might naively think. It is rather something we used to have until very recently. If we would go to a carpenter, the artisan would show us different design examples from pattern books or catalogues. We would then commission the work based on a pattern, and the furniture would get made. So good quality in furniture is by no means connected to securing intellectual property. Rather the opposite: Only mass produced goods need protection because they can never meet artisan standards.

Things not-so-smart

Marco Biranza's '9 Random Spots' is nice piece of calm technology as art. The color pattern changes, whenever the connected Geiger counter registers an accidental decay.

Marco Biranza’s ‘9 Random Spots’ is nice piece of calm technology. The color pattern changes, whenever the connected Geiger counter registers an accidental decay.

Smart things in the Casa Jasmina so far consist mostly of works of art, playing with concepts of Calm Technology. Some off-the-shelf smart tech has also found its way into the house. A Roomba, not connected at all, however in a way autonomous, and a Samsung Smart TV set. Right on the evening of the Casa’s grand opening, Juventus Turin faced FC Barcelona in the Champions League’s final, a game not to be missed by anybody in Turin, of course. But despite all the nerdy and geeky people around, we weren’t able to get this Smart TV set . In the end, I plugged my Laptop into the Samsung set, degrading it into a totally dumb screen for the really smart and connected however totally 20th century device that my PC is. Trouble went on after that was done, and realized, that Mediaset, Italy’s dreadful broadcast trust, would only stream their content via Silverlight – a video technology so outdated, that even its inventor Microsoft had long ago stopped supporting. So I had to start a virtual machine with Windows on my computer, and run an ancient version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer in that.

My laptop, running Windows XP in a VirtualBox, attached to the "Smart TV" ...

My laptop, running Windows XP in a VirtualBox, attached to the “Smart TV” …

This funny anecdote illustrates, what’s wrong with how the smart home business is implemented by the traditional consumer electronics companies. The design of the TV set is still the same as when there were just a couple of stations to switch between and no need for a keyboard to type in complex commands. Even worse is Mediaset’s online video service. Driven by the station’s wish to maintain control over the “digital rights management”, they built their proprietary system of content distribution with tools crippled for the very same reason. If such outdated software would run critical infrastructure, it would easily become a security risk. You wouldn’t even want to run your laundry with that.

Consumer electronics has the reputation to be an industry with the worst user interfaces and the lowest understanding of people’s behavior. If you have ever tried to program the clock of your stove, you know that CE engineers must be living just at the opposite site of the universe than their customers. Household technology was always outdated, obsolete electronics refurbished to once more generate some money. This is really not the industry you would want to resign your private data to. Neither are utility companies, which are among the main drivers of Smart Home, famous for their customer care.

On the other hand, we are becoming more and more used to doing things mobile. Services that are not accessible via app feel outdated and inefficient. People once having experienced the mobile convenience, will benchmark all electronic things accordingly. And why not? Just because the legacy providers of our services and products are not delivering according to our demand, should we take abstention? Should we give in, and keep to outdated, inefficient products that waste our time, energy and other resources?

Open Source

Will my home be run by Google Nest or by Apple Home? Imagine the ridiculous situation, when you decided to buy some smart device from one provider, and that would require all your other stuff to run the same proprietary operation system. You’d have to either give up your smart home functionality or to restock everything with the matching system. There might be some brand purists that want to mindlessly live in a monoculture. For most people, this seams not really practical.

cj9To become successful, smart appliances will have to be seamlessly interoperable with each other, too, no matter who manufactured them. This is not the business model of companies like Google or Apple. Open standards for interoperability is what open source stands for. The Arduino is the most advanced and most stable IoT technology anyway. But open source technology is not only better in making things work together. Open source means, that people can hack it, dismantle it, understand, how the thing and more important, its software really works. This is the only way I now that helps to make things secure. Only what can be hacked gets thoroughly tested. Only when there is a vivid discussion going on potential security flaws and how to patch these, we will get safe technology. This has been lessen we should have learned by now.

The Internet of Everything

“As Warren Ellis said at ThingsCon, we may be living in the last days when nobody knows where we are — when the home is still like an aristocrat’s castle, distinct from the rest of the world.”
Bruce Sterling

The Internet of Things is not just about machines talking to each other. The sensors on our devices generate and collect data that is directly linked to our personal lives, to our behavior, our actions, and the environment around us: “Data is made of people”

Privacy, informational self-determination, and algorithm ethics become even more important with the IoT, “the Internet of Things and Humans” as Tim O’Reilly calls it, or what might be even clearer, the “Internet of Everything”. Concepts like Big Data or the IoT bear the danger to get killed by overexposure and buzzwordization. The marketing and tech babble disguises, how pervasive the influence of digital tech on our lives already is. A human-scaled model of the smart home will help to make that visible. We will be able to explore how to get the best from the truly remarkable development, that could realy help us, not only to make our daily lives more convenient, but even more meaningful, more social, and more sustainable.
And this is why I belief Casa Jasmina is a very important project.


Bruce Sterling on the Casa Jasmina
Video: Introducing Casa Jasmina
Transmedia 2015
Casa Jasmina (this was at least my first encounter with the idea)

Further reading
Slow Startups
Algorithm Ethics
Ethics for the Quantified Self
My socialist post-liberal techno-determinism

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Slow Startups

Remember that time is money.
Benjamin Franklin

If there are two concepts that seem exactly contrary, it’s “Slow” and “Startup”. On the one hand an emphasis on quality, good living, carefully crafted products and relaxation on the other hand a focus on growth, traction and speed. But as we will argue in this post, the two can go hand in hand. Our vision is something like a “craft startup” that can be meaningful and disruptive at the same time. But first, let’s step back into history for a while:

It was Karl Marx who unfolded Franklin’s laconic “Advice to a Young Tradesman” into a theory of money, “Das Kapital”. And not even Hayek was able to argue away the disastrous idea of money being frozen time, when he advocated that economics was much more about negotiating value, instead of trading labour. Two hundred years after Marx, we still accept that taking a rush would stand for efficiency. Of course, you can’t spend a minute of your life twice. Thus, wasted time is irreplaceable, as Arnold Bennett describes in his wonderful “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day”. It is however much more than just a philosophical question, what wasted indeed means.

The startup world is full of time-saving concepts. We have incubators to grow newly founded businesses like mushrooms, accelerators, to speed up everything, from building the product to getting financed, we make our products an MVP, a minimum viable product, not really good, just good enough to see how much traction the startup idea can generate. And we’re doing all this based on the time-saving-philosophies of “Getting Things Done” in a “Four Hour Work-Week” mimicking the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. By the way, the only really successful startup-related business in Germany is named Rocket, and true to their brand name, Rocket is proud to get a business up and running in less than 100 days.

On the other hand, the typical pitch decks presented by startups to potential investors tell a story of world domination by efficiency. Industries have to be disrupted. Nothing less than a revolution has to be delivered by your MVP; a revolution of just-good-enoughness. And one of the best points for convincing investors is that your startup enabling people to perform more tasks in less time or to not even need humans anymore.

”I think people in Europe are generally pessimistic about the future. They have low expectations, they’re not working hard to change things. When you’re a slacker with a pessimistic view of the future, you’re likely to meet those expectations.”

Peter Thiel is right. In Europe, we give our workers more than 25 days of paid vacations. All countries have paid maternity leaves, mandatory employer-funded health care, strict cancellation ruled for employment contracts, and reasonably powerful unions. This is hardly compatible with the glorious frontier, as which Silicon Valley celebrates itself.

But can we think of a startup culture reflecting our values of quality, social responsibility, and lifestyle? How could we slackerish Continentals sustain our businesses against the presumably overwhelming industriousness of founders, who are willing to totally exploit themselves and work 24/7?

“Work hard, play hard” is usually said about people who use drinking to attenuate the unbearable requirements of their work. If you found you own business, this is regarded as tough. The logic why it has to be seems to go like this: If it wouldn’t be incredibly hard, why would anybody still accept the boredom and humiliations of being an employee?

The idea of having to earn something instead of just being given it as a present is the core of the protestant religion. It is an ideology, a dogma, rather than a theory supported by empirical evidence. So maybe it is sufficient to just overcome this notion? Maybe we can just start to work self-determined, at our own speed, according to our own values instead?

This is where our Slow Media concept can translate into the idea of a Slow Startup:

1) Attachment instead of obsolescence

‘Getting things done’ is just the opposite of doing things. This is not just some shallow Zen truth. ‘Getting things done’ expresses explicit contempt for the process of making that leads to planned obsolescence. “If it works, it’s obsolete”, as McLuhan put it. Attachment is a feeling that is formed over time. To feel attached to your work and the products you make is in itself gratifying. Industrialization severed the workers from their product, disenfranchised them; Entfremdung, alienation, is Marx’ term for this. Maybe attachment is the first step to making your startup slower.

2) Craft instead of intellectual property

The value of a Prada bag does not originate in the fact that it is protected intellectual property. In fact, it is easier to buy a pirated copy of most luxury goods than the incommensurably more expensive originals, which are often only available in very few stores in the world. Of course it is necessary to defend your work against fraud and denigration, but this is certainly beyond the idea of guarding some obscure legal titles that draw their value rather from the ability of your lawyers (and the size of your legal’ budget), than from what you really created. Let’s sell our craft, let’s create goods, not commodities. Let’s create things that people would by because they are genuine, not because they fear prosecution.

3) Don’t lock-in your customers

The so called network effect is perhaps the most important reason for startups to do their business in such a rush. The network effect occurs when a company can set their solution as a standard, and then secure exclusive economic utilization. The curse of digital media is that they tend to support winner-takes-it-all games. When one service manages to gain enough advantage to its competition, the market tends to concentrate on this service. When everybody is on Facebook, costs of abstention are unbearably high, and spending your attention to a smaller competitor feels increasingly like a waste of time. If you choose Apple to run your things, there is hardly room for variety anymore. We don’t want to lock our customers in our products. We don’t want to force people to use a product we offer, just because they once decided to buy another product from us without realizing the consequences. We want to collaborate, to be part of an environment, not to pretend to be able to create the whole ecosystem on our own.

4) Be democratic, avoid brand fascism

We want to provide versatile tools, not totalitarian take-overs. We want to respect people’s privacy. We need to process data. We don’t want to take ownership of people’s lives by doing that. Our brand gives you trust that what you bought is worth its price.

5) Algorithm ethics

Be aware of value judgements. Just because you decide that a feature of your product seams logic they way you do it, doesn’t mean it is necessarily the only way it could work. Everything that is designed contains value judgments, arbitrary decisions made by the designer. Let’s make our decisions visible, let’s make our motives transparent. Let’s show the levers and set screws that govern the behavior of our product. Let’s invite people to hack our tools. Only what gets hacked eventually gets secure.

6) Accept no slavery

It is hard to imagine that any citizen of the 21st century would willingly accept others to be enslaved. Apparently, however, most gadgets are manufactured by sweatshops under unacceptable conditions. And lots of startups deeply depend on these global “bads”. Whole industries have offshored their manufacturing. Instead of valuing the production, the product itself gets commoditized. The manufacturer is just a random fab that was able to get the tender because it would undercut the competition. Let’s keep our product clean and bright, let’s not contaminate our work with the exhaust of those black satanic mills.

7) Be slow

“Those who live by disruption will die by disruption.” Our answer will be: “Go, disrupt yourself, while we are building something valuable.”

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Slow – the open alternative to platform capitalism

Uber is the new Google (which was already the new Microsoft, that was maybe the new United Fruits, or the new Standard Oil). And while we hear that “Software eats the world”, we learn with how little control we are left with. Like shopping malls, the walled gardens of the Facebook’s and Google’s Internet exclude the public, and the political. 

With the Internet of Things, the business model of forcing use and services into silos and protected property starts to contaminate the very physical parts of our reality: smart cities, connected cars and homes. Uber’s aggressive omittance of social rules has become synonymous for what is called platform capitalism.

Dystopia of corporate oligarchy

Contemporary science fiction often tells about this world of winner-takes-it-all markets. From the DEAMON, placed in the now, to Windup Girl, in a more distant future, where every plant life is extinct except for patented grains from American crop conglomerates. What most of these writers get wrong is how contingent the conditions are, that lead to such oligarchies. Just like the trusts before World War 1, Google, Uber, or Monsanto nourish from inefficiencies of the slowly changing legal system. Nothing that couldn’t be changed by the voters. The ongoing protests against the US-European free trade treaty TTIP show, that there indeed is an alternative to just give in to the status quo.


José Bové, the French agro-revolutionary, became famous for “deconstructing” a McDonald’s branch, going to jail for that, but not without being decorated with high honors by the French president for his epic fight against the malbouffe, the bad-eating. “Le monde n’est pas une marchandise.” And as much as I love this quote, it is aiming way too short. It is the same argument by which Naomi Klein at the same time fiercely ranted against the marketing driven corporate culture of Nike, Apple, and their like – “No Logo”.

Slow Food, the Italian answer to malbouffe, came finally to resolve this dialectic of economy versus culture, that made the ecological movement so repelling for the bourgeois mainstream.
Slow Food is a brand. The products under its label are distinctly branded as well. Certified regional origin and testified raw products are the legal backbone of Slow Food. The process of production however is totally transparent. No trade secrets – everybody can learn to do Slow Food by just reading the cookbooks.

Net culture?

I have seen the rise and fall of the Pirate Party. I had put great hope and personal effort in reinventing politics with internet wit. It failed. We failed. In other parts of the world this failure was more dramatic. The Arab Spring that had the power to overthrow authoritarian regimes without a chance to replace them. M5S in Italy, who not even bothered to hide their right-wing libertarianism. The German Piratenpartei is on the best way to follow this path (however without much hope for success in the elections). What was missing was rooting the system into culture.

Make in Italy

Five years ago, we wrote the Slow Media Manifesto. We were convinced that there would be an alternative to malbouffe also for our industry. How would slow but still internet-driven culture look like?

Open source is usually criticized by advocates of the culture industry like Jaron Lanier as to be the lever to fully disenfranchise the creative class. José Bové saw it right in the opposite way. He blamed patents and intellectual property to be the main cause of trouble for the peasants in Europe, together with state subsidiaries which (like patents) tend to only support big business without helping small producers. Everyone can try to grow wine or try to make cheese. Good wine and good cheese are not sold with a price premium because they are patented. We pay to get something that would cost effort not to invent, but to produce.

Kano is a computer for kids based on Raspberry Pi. Kano was crowdfunded on Kickstarter. Although it has a full scale Debian Linux system running on it, the Kano’s user interface is designed for young children who can learn to code on the Kano as easily as they build things with Lego.

Raspberry Pi is an open source computer that comes from England and Wales (depending whom you ask you’d get the one or the other response …). The Pi is the most versatile tool for any kind of computational task, be it streaming media, be it kid’s computers. More than 2 million Pis have been shipped. Arduino is an open source circuit board from Piedmont. If you want to see what the Internet of Things will look like, just check Arduino based projects.

Pi and Arduino are laying the groundwork for a new kind of design and manufacturing: The Maker movement. The Maker movement fits nicely into the small-scale cultures of Italy, which has for centuries been artisan rather then industrial.

Open source luxury

My Prada satchel. Of course every maker of leather goods could make a satchel like that. It is not the copyright-protected design that makes the genuine product valuable.

Bruce Sterling sketches “Make in Italy” as the natural extension of “Made in Italy”. He argues that people will always pay for the value of artisan manufacturing. What Slow Food did for agriculture and cuisine, Maker Movement could do for design and luxury goods, which are the primary assets of the Italian economy. ‘Open source luxury’ is not a contradiction. Italian food is not precious because it cannot be legally copied. Fashion is not special because it is protected intellectual property; in fact you can buy all sorts of counterfeited Italian fashion brands, but this does in no way diminish the value of the genuine thing. Bruce Sterling’s possible future economy of open source artisan household goods and accessories is truly beautiful. I strongly encourage watching his plea in this video on the ‘Casa Jasmina’.

Bruce Sterling’s version of a benign open source economy would also perfectly fit the German manufacturing culture. I am sure, my friend Ibo Evsan is right with his plan to leverage maker spaces into the heart of German manufacturing which is mid-sized, family-owned factories.

We started Slow Media because we already saw that there were things happening to change the game – Slow Fashion, Slow Furniture, and a whole Slow Industry we hoped we would see evolving. Five years later, I am sure that we were right to join the idea of Slowness.


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Remembering Ulrich Beck

[German version]


Somehow, we had lost sight of each other.

For 12 years, the theories and ideas of Ulrich Beck had become a kind of significant other for me. Ulrich had even been the reason, I abandoned my chemistry studies in 1997 and changed to sociology (oddly enough, from one Professor Beck to the other). His lecture on “Social Structure of the Federal Republic of Germany” in the Great Hall of the University of Munich was my first encounter with sociology. And what a furious encounter it had been!

While other professors opened their lectures with explaining the simplest basic concepts and statistics that you could also learn from reading a newspaper, Ulrich’s lecture started with an elaborate argument on why the basic concepts of “first modernity” – nation-state, social structure, social change – were already obsolete and able to survive only as a kind of “zombie concepts”. Many freshmen left the lecture with their heads spinning, but for me this was exactly what I needed. And a maximum contrast to chemistry.

My diploma thesis then focused on his concept of “internal globalization”. At the core was the idea that our world was much more globalized and hybrid on the inside as it appeared at first glance. To prove Ulrich Beck’s hypothesis that corporations had undergone an intensive process of inner globalization, I typed line by line from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development statistical yearbooks and statistically analyzed the resulting dataset. The result then even became a nearly full-page footnote citation in his book “Macht und Gegenmacht im Globalen Zeitalter”.

The theory of “inner globalization” then slowly metamorphosed into a theory of Cosmopolitanism during the DFG Research Centre 536 on “Reflexive Modernization”. Once again, Ulrich demonstrated how quickly he and his ideas could evolve – while many of his peers only gradually understood and accepted globalization theory and Reflexive Modernization, he was already one step ahead and had again discovered a new dimension of social theory. Doing research together with Ulrich always meant: sociological theory in the fast lane. But when you were getting into it, it could quickly become the most exciting and rewarding experience.

After the end of the SFB in 2009, I left academia and joined a private research company. But this was never meant to be a final good-bye. Still, I was tracking the development of Munich sociology only marginally for the following five years. Until September 2014 when Ulrich Beck invited all his former assistants and staff for a reunion meeting by email.

The group met – somewhat decimated due to the German rail strike – in the Faculty Room of the University Munich. I told Ulrich that although not working in science anymore, there still were a lot of connections to his theory, in particular the theory of Cosmopolitization in my practical work. My impression was that he was quite delighted that his cosmopolitan project increasingly came to life outside the academic world. In addition, we discovered that we had a common theme again: the question of the immense contribution of the Internet and Social Media to the Cosmopolitization the world.

Suddenly, we were back again in a lively and productive exchange with many phone calls, emails and discussions about Big Data, Twitter analysis and memetic communication in his new office in the Schellingstrasse. In December we met in Paris at the workshop of his new EU research project at the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme. The participants came from Brazil, England, France, China, South Korea, Canada and Denmark. It was very inspiring to see how Ulrich’s ideas had evolved into a global research project – and he really seemed at home in the middle of this truly cosmopolitan research community.

I said goodbye to Ulrich with the good feeling that this would be the beginning of an exciting new phase of cooperation. In early January we wanted to meet again to continue working on “cosmopolitan data”. Unfortunately I was wrong. Suddenly learning that this should not be the beginning of a new phase, but just a final flare, still hurts a lot. But at the same time I’m grateful beyond words for the last two and a half months.


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Ages of Life

[Original German blog post]

Daniel 2,31-36 aus der Merian-Bibel
You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
Daniel interprets Nebukadnezar’s vision. The colossal statue symbolizes the course of history, starting with a ‘golden age’, the paradise, deteriorating epoch after epoch. Until the messianic event – the world revolution – which stands at the end of this ‘historic materialism’.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.1. Cor 13

.והיית אך שמח Devarim 16,15

Hours, days, or weeks repeating, that is a useful illusion. In reality we live through each moment of our life only once; thereafter it has passed. What we experience as relatively homogenous over certain time spans in our lives, is ourselves. We have the impression of uniformity, because we are one person, indeed more or less the same every day.

Over longer time periods, our person however changes, and in fact not continuously, but at specific points in our life very rapidly, while it appears almost constant over years or decades. It is a not completely arbitrary conclusion, to divide our life into sections: childhood, youth, adulthood, senility – or something similar.

Romano Guardini (1885-1968) has written a remarkable book on the life’s ages, their ethical and pedagogical meaning, Lebensalter, Ihre ethische und pädagogische Bedeutung (as is the original German titel). On some thoughts therein I want to further dwell here.

Every section of age is based on specific needs, faculties, and motivations. The necessity to satisfy these needs, to develop the faculties according to one’s age, and to follow one’s motivations, entails the appropriate ethics -what is good and important for children, is hardly by itself the right thing for adults.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven, as Qohelet says. This concept of targeted, progressing life is typical for our Judeo-Christian Weltbild; death is the point, where life is completed, and where every goal has to be reached – in opposite to cyclical systems of rebirth, our occidential life spans an arc.

A central aspect in progressing from one age to the next, are crises, even dramatic discontinuities, through which we (should) live, when we e.g. change from the age of the mature adult into senility; things that went seamlessly as an adult, we have to learn to let go, to give room for others; if we manage to get old in dignity depends not least if we are able to make that step, or if we try to perpetuate our youthfulness, long lost in reality, into eternity, as a fop like Thomas Mann’s protagonist Aschenbach in Death in Venice. These crises constitute how we devide our lives into ages, as mentioned above.

Each of the ages has a correspondent way to comprehend the world. This comprehension corresponds also with a certain way to express ourselves in language. Children experience the world in a sort of mystical way, all the enchanted, that for adults lies at the edge of kitsch, is experienced as real part of the personal world. For children, metaphors are not paraphrasing of reality, but reality itself.

Here we leave Guardini, who mentioned the idea of rhetorical figures just marginally in his context of ages. We move back two hundred fifty years to Naples, where Giambattista Vico had published his philosophical magnum opus Sciencia Nuova, the New Science in 1725.
Vico had been pondering on history for many years, in particular on Greek and Roman antiquity, and he had studied the literature of those times intensively. There he recognized a fact, that went totally unnoticed before: The “high cultures” he investigated, were not homogenous over time, but they appeared to him as a temporal hierarchy, a coming of ages, maturing, and decaying -Corso and Ricorso. Each of these epochs, so Vico deduced, brings specific properties of culture and society to the people living in it, that we could compare with Guardini’s ages of life.

Especially one thing came to Vico’s attention: Every epoch had specific tropes, that shaped its literature and presumably also the whole thinking of its time. From this observation he unfolded an original system. The earliest literature of some culture expresses a mystic way of comprehending the world – everything is incorporated by metaphors. In these times, people belief in gods steering fate directly, until they finally get replaced by heroes. Now it is men, that define destiny, however supernaturally advanced and legendary figures. Metonymy is the figure of speech in the age of the heroes. Finally comes the actually historic epoch, the Polis or republic, with real humans as acting subjects. Legal texts and political speeches now make the most part of literature. Metaphors or figurative meaning hardly have room here. Irony is the trope of the age of the humans. After that decline comes – empire and dictatorship, worshiping heroes again, and at last decay into the mystic epoch of the Völkerwanderung, the early medieval age.

If we compare Vico with Guardini, it is obvious to combine the ages of life with the epochs of history – and thus we get an appropriate rhetoric figure for each phase of our lives, too. Children comprehend the world in play. As in mysticism, everything can be “the normal thing”, e.g. a plank, and still something different, say a spacecraft. Children make no difference between fairytale and non-fiction. Adolescence brings hero worship, exaggeration of role models, the projection, the hyperbole. For adults, everything is achievable, scientific, regular. In their dealing with each others, irony helps adults to demonstrate distance to their own positions, “take it with a pinch of salt”. With dwindling power in older age, growing feelings of anxiety, a desire for security, fixation on solid structures, and the longing for strong leadership in a society, that is increasingly sensed as threatening, are the consequences. As a doter we end unable to differentiate reality from fantasy – senile paranoia, depression, or “mystic wisdom”.

Age of Life Epoch Trope
Childhood mysticism metaphor
Youth heros metonymy
Adulthood humans irony
Seniority Ricorso metonymy
Senility decay metaphor

As mentioned frequently before, we can describe our current history as a sequence of turning points in communication culture. First, the Linguistic Turn makes an end with the dark medieval times, with its allegoric thinking, the childhood of our culture. The Iconic Turn lifts us into the age of global mass communication, with irony, not to say cynicism as the leading figuere. and finally we are living through the next turn, the Memetic Turn, falling back into the pictorial. This history of turns I have elaborated on in its own post: Memetic Turn.


A world as inexorable sequence of progresses has underlying something sad. That to say, everybody always dies to early. There is probably no agreeable way to part from life. Goals unmet, things that remain unsolved at the end of life, they even appear tragic. Thus the angel of history has with wide open eyes to see “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet”; progress as sequence of tragedies. Instead however to grieve about our certain end, I recommend now, to read Nachman of Breslov, that great mystic, who taught twohundred years ago, in what today is the Ukraine, as chassidic zaddik; his morale rule: “Mitzvah gedolah le’hiyot besimcha tamid” – It is the great commandment to always be happy..

Further readings:
Qohelet – Time and Happiness
Memetic Turn
Walter Benjamin: Über den Begriff der Geschichte IX

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“Slow Media is a blog with a manifesto”, someone said and that is true. Here’s our english blog with the translation of our slow media manifesto which we originally wrote in german. You will find some translated (or written in english) blog posts – but not all of them. For a broader picture you are welcome to join our german blog and our slow media intitute’s site (google translate will assist if necessary).

International recensions, reactions and responses you will find on

A nice illustration of our manifesto’s preamble I recently found  at The Future of Britain

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Collapsing Moments. Failure-driven Debugging of Intuition

by Regine Heidorn, Bit-Boutique®.

[Original German Post]

In our consciousness of the everyday grind we are mostly aware of thoughts, feelings and actions for a moment or a longer timespan like days or weeks. We try to do the Right Thing™ at the Right Time™ to keep us in a flow to reach our goals. Frequent self-reflection on this consciousness enables us to tell if we have managed to do right.

I am using the terms right or good though they are not easily defined without getting in a mess of philosophical ethics and morality. Since I am speaking about intuition and failure in our biographies, I prefer to stay on a more subject-related level. Feel free to fill good and right with your own content. In case you don’t believe in these categories at all or don’t value them somehow: they are not playing a really important role in this post.

read more …

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Another divide.

[Original German Blog Post]

A chasm runs through our society (if we would stay with this 19th century term anyway). The Digital Divide is usually attributed to the problems of “digital illiteracy”, the fact that a portion of the world’s population is kept outside the Internet by poverty or stubbornness.

In truth, however, and I am convinced about that, the fault of the digital divide is cutting on a much more elementary level though our so called occidental culture. And I take this reactionist term as fully adequate, as Oswald Spengler would have done, because we are talking about nothing less then the complete upheaval of the order that we took for granted at least during the last 200 years. Why would I write such lofty stuff? Because it fits!

Fifteen years ago, I had read a witty article in Wired: : Net-Heads vs. Bell-Heads. Bell-Heads is derived from the Bell Telephone Company, the world’s first telco and direct predecessor of AT&T. Over a hundred years, the Bell-Heads had been the architects of the global (tele-)communication. From the Bell Labs in New Jersey many of the most important inventions of the IT-age originated, not least the transistor. The Bell-Heads had been the heros and prophets of the connected world.

The end of the Bell-age bears legendary traits in the meantime: how John Draper in 1972, with a whistle from some cereal-promotion would have seized the whole US telephone system. When the decentralized net-logic of TCP/IP was more and more established, it became clear to the mentors of Net culture: centralized, bureaucratic systems like that of the telcos would in the long run be inferior to the distributed chaos of the Net. The Net-heads, the evangelists of an anti-hierarchic communications architecture became the apocalypticists revelating the dusk of the old telephone world.


The Net without fixed hierarchy, with mere local organisation is the metaphor for a new model of society. The degree of freedom from force, of freedom of speech and the sheer unlimited possibilities of personal evolvement and creativity that we could experience since the 90ies in the Internet, has shown to us, how we also could live. The communications network became an Utopia. Reality outside the Net however looked different: 9/11, “War against Terror”, banking crisis, economic slavery, refugees that our own border patrol would drown in the Mediterranean, and the fight for “intellectual property” – just to chant a short part of last decade’s litany. Thus it is no wonder, that the Net would sometimes take downright messianic shape in our view, the place where everything shall be better. Today however I do not want to dive into deconstructing these – as always – questionable promises of salvation.

Suddenly there is disturbance in the world. People stand up and go down into the streets. But it is not ideologies, neither party platforms or union speeches that set people into turmoil. The occasion for insurgency is not the same for all events. From the Maghreb to Spain and to the US, there are definitively different coercions, against which the people rise.

What unites the demonstrators from Tahrir Square to Wallstreet, is the disire for self-determination and self-organisation. And the model is the culture in the Net.

Thierry Lhote had twittered: “like in may 68 in France a whole generation is learning meme manufacturing for their next Media VP job #occupywallstreet”; and what might read cynical at first sight, turns out to a remarkable observation. In the same way as 50 years ago, a generation has grown up, for whom a consensus about the values of the “old world” can no longer be reached. Thereby the dived cuts right through the middle of the old political wings. Right, left, green – all these groups are dominated by a generation that stays foreign to the Net culture emotionally and intellectually, even, if they do not position themselves openly hostile. And when the Net-heads try to get involved with the old structures, this does only work as far as nothing gets changed and the Old is accepted unconditionally. This was demonstrated in a tragic-comically way recently, when a case of Twitter-censorship shook the German green party.

The rise of the Pirate Party is often compared to the rise of the green party in the late 70ies. And much of this comparison fits. Some enemies of then remained the same: nuclear energy or monopolistic corporations. Some parts are even strikingly parallel. What the Notstandsgesetze, the “Emergency Laws” would have meant for our parents (this role would have played the draft for the US), for us today it is Internet surveillance, three-strikes-out, bail-out, and FRONTEX. The meme #ozapftis (the uncovering of the government malware) is the Watergate of our generation.

Damals, als wg. Sachen wie #Bundestrojaner noch Bürger auf die Straßen gegangen wären.
Those were the times when citizens would have gone into the streets on occasions like that

might @videopunk lament – but I am convinced that this is exactly what happens.

Further reading:
Disrupt politics!
Memetic Turn

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Public relations after the memetic turn

I don’t like the term PR 2.0. It suggests an improved version of something that has been around a long time. Some bugs have been removed, some new features have been added. But all in all, it’s still public relations as we know it. I think this is not the case.

Why? Because we went through something that can be called the “memetic turn” or “memetic revolution”. The concept of course refers to Richard Dawkins memetic theory in his “Selfish Gene”. Basically, memes are bits of information (images, metaphors, jokes), that are spreading through a network. Originally, Dawkinsian memes are encoded in genetic material, but here I will not refer to the evolution of behavior or species, but to the evolution of media. In a nutshell: Memetic communication is destroying society – mass society to be precise. This is because the meaning of memes seldom can be decoded by everyone, but is only available to members of one distinctive community. Think of a picture of a LOLcat “I iz eating your GTD folder”) in comparison to a headline such as “USA declares war on Germany”. The first is memetic, the second isn’t.

Usually we think media evolution interdependent with social evolution. Mass society created mass media and so on. But it is exactly the other way around. When we look at the origin of the nation state, media such as national newspapers, national traditions, national novelists came first. With Benedict Anderson, we can argue that national newspapers created the first nations.

At the beginning of the 21. century, we can clearly see the demise of the national newspaper, national Television or national politics (e.g. the Volksparteien in Germany). At the same time, there is a distinctly non-national medium on the rise: the Internet. In the beginning, we framed this medium in terms of the ascent of the global age and the first iconic representations of the Web always has been the globe.

But the more we look at the Web, the more we discover that it is no global medium, but a tribal one. Ideas travel through the various social graphs not the way global mass media would do, but their path resembles the way information was distributed in the various accounts of classic ethnologists. A large part of online communication is memetic – using strong icons for communications, that can only be deciphered by relatively small tribes, and no longer considered newsworthy for the general public.

And finally, I come to the role of public relations. The bad news is that one of the first casualities of the memetic revolution has been the general public. This is a quirky situation for an industry that has been mostly about telling stories to the general public or to journalists (that in turn translated the stories for the general public).

The good news for public relations is, that after understanding the implications of the memetic turn, there are not fewer but more opportunities to tell your stories. A lot more. But the skills are changing. Public relations is no longer about writing press releases that are attractive to the general public or some vague sociodemographic audiences (e.g. “Entscheider”).

The work of a PR professional resembles more and more traveling shamans wandering from tribe to tribe and delivering their highly special and individualized services to different communities.

The skills include:

– getting to know the relevant tribal audiences and identifying the locations and communal boundaries of the tribes with the help of tools such as social media monitoring

– learning their dialects, rituals, social structure by participant observation at community gatherings online as well as offline (netnography)

– translating the story to be told for the lifeworld of the community

At the moment, the first memetic PR shamans are already mingling with their relevant communities. They are mostly self-taught practitioners, but I am very optimistic, that the skills will be sooner or later be part of the regular curriculum for public relations professionals.

As matter of fact, the memetic turn can also be understood as an appeal to practitioners to return to the forgotten task and original promise of public relations: Go and create relations! Today, one should add: And let them be sustainable relations.

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